Letter: The liberal arts are not useless

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Since the last recession, college majors in the social sciences and humanities have been falling while STEM majors have risen sharply. Computer science majors have more than doubled since 2013 and business majors are flourishing, too. One reason for this is the belief that job prospects are better in "practical" fields than those in supposedly "useless" subjects in the social sciences and humanities. In 1967, 20% of degrees were in subjects associated with the liberal arts. Today it's 5%.

But students who avoid the humanities and social sciences may be missing a good bet. Research by the Andrew Melon Foundation says that "all the evidence shows that the bashing of ... the liberal arts just isn't well founded." Melon's research shows that while engineers do make higher incomes than liberal arts majors, "more than 60% of the latter are ending up in the top two quintiles of income post graduation, even if they started out in the bottom three quintiles." Further, A hefty 90% of liberal arts grads say they enjoy their jobs. Their employers value them for having a broader world view and being able to communicate better than those with more specialized majors.


Why are enrollments in the liberal arts falling? One reason, surely, is that most students arrive in college having had little exposure to them in elementary and secondary school and never developed a taste for them.
No major has declined more than history. Baccalaureate degrees have dropped by a third since 2011 and today account for less than 2% of all majors. An exception is in the Ivy League, where the liberal arts still flourish, probably because their students are generally affluent to begin with and have more freedom to choose majors they enjoy.

Why has history, which once was deemed indispensable to the repertoire of an educated person, fallen so low? Ideology is one reason. For decades, the campuses have been in the grip of multiculturalism, an anti-Western doctrine which says that history is the product of dead white European males, oppressors who, with the exception of some ancient Greeks, didn't even have the decency to be gay. So, mainstream historians have a "western supremacist" perspective that glorifies the accomplishments of the West while the achievements of Amazonian head hunters are ignored.


New Yorker magazine blames boring textbooks for the lack of interest in history among high school students. Provocative figures and events which might stir controversy are omitted because they could upset today's ultra-fragile students. The American Historical Association has said that the best inducement for potential majors are introductory courses on the campuses, but that today these are preempted by community colleges and by AP courses in high schools so that many students don't get a proper introduction to the subject.

Which is too bad, because the National Assessment of Educational Progress - the "nation's report card" - says that Americans are suffering from an acute case of historical amnesia. The NAEP finds that only 13% of high school seniors are proficient in U.S. history; and it's not much better in other basic subjects.

Thomas Jefferson said in a democracy the people must be the guardians of their own liberty and that "history, by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge the future ... will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every guise it may assume; and knowing it to defeat its views. Every government degenerates when entrusted to the rulers of the people alone."

He added that citizens should possess cultural knowledge in common, so that everyone should be taught "the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history, as well as the first elements of morality."

Diane Ravitch, an eminent historian of education, adds that "Whether or not individuals get a better job with a better education, they will nevertheless find personal, lifelong value in their knowledge of history and literature, science and social science, art and mathematics. And democratic society itself by disseminating reason, knowledge civic wisdom as broadly as possible."

The liberal arts are not useless. They are the glue that holds a nation together. Yet foundational subjects have been abandoned in favor of electives that have no public purpose whatsoever. An incoherent curriculum cheats students, who have a right to a first class education, and it threatens the social order as well. Our neglect of the liberal arts is a loss to the individual and to the nation.

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