Fewer Students Are Choosing Humanities — What San Diego Colleges Are Doing About It
On Monday, 30 or so students gathered on the bluffs just west of UC San Diego. The heat pounded down on brittle brush and swaths of barren dirt.
“If you came a few months ago, this would be covered with all of this black mustard, which gives off this yellow flower,” said Craig Callender, a professor. “You see this stuff everywhere. It’s a big invasive.”
You might think these students are gearing up to study ecology or biology. They’re actually studying the humanities — fields such as literature and history. Callender teaches philosophy.
“See all this dead stuff?” he said, pointing to another invasive plant species. “That’s all dead, crystalline iceplant. So one thing you might want to do is come out here with a big rake and rake all that stuff up so it doesn’t grow back when it rains."
“Now, if you did that, you’d be privileging one plant over another,” he said. “Why does one plant matter more than the other plant?”
Callender wants the students to mull the philosophical questions behind environmental conservation and habitat restoration. He also wants them to understand that there’s still a place for the humanities in this world.
“If you scratch under the surface of almost any big decision — politics, conservation science, all sorts of things — you wind up with a philosophical question,” Callender said.
Headlines have long decried the death of humanities as educators and policymakers emphasize STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math. The jury is out on that, but what is true is the number of students choosing humanities majors at UCSD has fallen by 30 percent since 2003. Meanwhile, the number of science, math and engineering majors has nearly doubled.
The program that brought students to the bluffs of La Jolla is an effort to reverse that trend. Called PATH, it’s in partnership with the San Diego Community College District and brings humanities students who are transferring from a two-year institution to UCSD. The goal is twofold: cement students’ place in the humanities and build a pipeline of humanities ambassadors.
“Part of the problem is that students and parents don’t know enough about different majors and different career tracks,” said Danny Widener, a history professor and PATH director. “We don’t do enough to get the message out about who people are and what they do.”
Widener said that’s especially true for UCSD, which is known for its STEM programs. But San Diego State — better known for liberal arts and business — has also seen a drop in humanities majors as the number of students interested in science increases. Whether it’s leftover anxiety from the Great Recession, hefty tuition or more first-generation students who can’t afford to take risks, it seems STEM has attracted students as a sure bet at employment.
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“What’s happened is the tuition, the pressure, the anxiety pushing people too soon to decide who they are, and that’s unfortunate because we need to have a period of discovery and reflection so that we can really grow into the people that we are,” Widener said.
Across town from the dusty nature reserve, Pamella Lach works in the cool basement of SDSU’s library. The Digital Humanities Center is filled with slick, white surfaces on which students and faculty can write ideas.
Similar to Callender’s philosophical take on ecology, the digital humanities look at technology through the lens of literature, history, philosophy and more. Both Callender and Lach say, with climate change and a society more plugged in than ever, the humanities are as relevant as they’ve always been, if not more.
“People have been saying there’s a crisis in the humanities for at least a century, and I’m not sure about that,” said Lach, who is the digital humanities librarian. “I think the humanities has a lot to offer society, and students who study the humanities are learning how to be good citizens, to think critically, to make sense of information and evidence, and to build arguments. And those are really valuable skills regardless of what sector they’re going to go into when they graduate.”
The university may soon offer a digital humanities minor, allowing students to use the humanities to ask questions about technology — such as whether search algorithms and artificial intelligence perpetuate racism and sexism. Scholars in the field also use technology to support their studies in the humanities. Some faculty are using technology to comb Twitter for sociological insights and virtual reality to recreate ancient cities.
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“I don’t want to paint this picture of the humanities are flailing and digital humanities is wearing its superhero cape and it’s going to swoop in to save the day,” Lach said. “But digital humanities is a great opportunity for us to think about how to bridge the gap between the sciences and humanities.”
Back on the bluffs in La Jolla, literature major Kelly Cleman said she isn’t sure yet what she’ll do with her major — she’s working with PATH career counselors to identify options like teaching, technical writing and grant writing. But Cleman said she feels even more strongly that she’s on the right path.
“Even just from today and from the classes that we’ve been taking, everything is interconnected. Like we’re taking a jazz class and history of race in America, and those are intertwined. And I’d never thought about philosophical applications to environmental ecology before,” she said. “So you can apply that to literally everything you’re learning about. And it’s important. It’s important to have ethics in science.”
It’s too soon to tell, but enrollment data from the past couple of years suggests the downward trend for humanities may be reversing at UCSD. Faculty hope students like Cleman will keep the trend line moving in that direction.