What the Humanities Crisis Really Looks Like: Examining the Data, Past, and Present

  • 2020-02-13
  • The Daily

For Paul Atkins, the chair of the department of Asian Languages and Literature, graduating from Stanford in the late ‘90s with a Ph.D. in Japanese, surrounded by the tech boom, was not a point of anxiety.

More often than not, as Atkins tells it, students at the time were told by adults and their peers that it was reasonable to change jobs, which took the pressure off immediately deciding one’s life path. This mentality is generally representative of both students and educational institutions at the time, which emphasized college as a time for fact-finding and self-discovery.

Today, that relationship is not so simple. Most graduates today who leave college with a humanities B.A., let alone a Ph.D., are often worried about job prospects. But, as the Atlantic points out, there hasn't been any meaningful decline in what humanities majors are earning, rather there is something more subtle going on.

According to Benjamin Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northwestern University, students have shifted their perspective to what they ought to be studying in the wake of a tech-dominated economy. The humanities is therefore relabeled as a study that puts students at a deficit, rather than one that is adaptable and provides skills for a changing future.

In 2015, Georgetown University released a study showing entry level job earnings by graduates 21 to 24 years old was $29,000 for humanities majors and $43,000 for STEM majors. Though this may seem like a sharp difference, statistically, the data is not. Looking to the next bracket, which records data for majors aged 25 to 59, the averages for humanities jump to $51,000, representing a 76% increase from entry level earners.

While professors at the UW argue that there is value in generalist degrees, and the data agree, the College of Arts and Sciences still recognizes that there needs to be a growing emphasis on professionalization in the humanities.