The short answer: very alive.
After an extended period during which more and more students have felt the need–regardless of personal interest and aptitude–to major in business, engineering, or computer-related fields, the liberal arts, especially the humanities, have faced declining enrollment.
The impact that this trend has had on personal growth and enlightened participation in civic life is evident, given the tone and outcome of the presidential election.
In the meantime, several prominent public universities have endured attacks on their humanities departments and commitment to learning for learning’s sake, most notably UT Austin, Florida universities, and, very recently, UW Madison. Most states have dramatically reduced financial support for their universities; some regents have used the real or manufactured budget crisis as a pretext for attacking non-vocational disciplines.
But the liberal arts and, yes, the core humanities that are essential to the liberal arts, have survived in public honors colleges and programs. Some students express resentment that, in order to be in an honors program, they must take a series of interdisciplinary seminars and electives in the humanities. Under pressure from parents or highly focused on their chosen vocational discipline, they want “to get on with it” and reach a point where they can start making real money and pay back those student loans.
This is understandable. But honors educators know that almost every bright student is in many ways unformed and searching for paths of meaning in their lives. One course in history, or philosophy, or literature, or maybe in religious studies or film, can guide a student toward a lifetime of serious inquiry, self reflection, and greater compassion for others. These and other courses in the liberal arts reinforce the application of informed judgment to facts that are often contradictory or in flux.
Consensus is emerging that for many students, “We don’t need more STEM majors. We need more STEM majors with liberal arts training.” Indeed, this is one of the two or three major advantages of honors programs. STEM majors who otherwise would take few liberal arts courses (and an extremely small number of humanities classes), must take them as members of a university-wide honors college or program.
But one other major–business–could likely benefit even more from greater exposure to the liberal arts and, again, to the humanities
Recent research shows that “critical thinking,” measured after adjusting for entrance test scores, shows the greatest gains for students in the liberal arts. Engineering and technology students have high raw entrance test scores and strong critical thinking ability, but after adjusting for the effect of the high test scores, their critical thinking skills are relatively lower.
Business majors do not receive high raw or adjusted scores in critical thinking. Given that a plurality of bachelor’s degrees are awarded in business subjects, this is a matter of significant concern.
English is the discipline most offered by honors programs. This is so because many of the required English classes have a heavy writing component, often associated with the study of rhetoric. In these classes the humanities and vocational mastery come together in a way, for the most successful and most fulfilled professionals often have outstanding communication skills and a heightened sensitivity to the thoughts and needs of others.
So what are the “liberal arts”? The answer to this question varies, but here we will include the following disciplines, all of which are traditional core offerings in liberal arts colleges (humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences):
Humanities: English, history, philosophy, fine arts, foreign languages, religious studies, film, classics. Sciences: math, biology, chemistry, physics, geology. Social Sciences: sociology, anthropology, gender studies, psychology, communications, political science, economics, and geography.
(One can see that many of these can be, and often are, “vocational” in themselves.)
Using the above as our “liberal arts,” we used data gathered for our most recent book, Inside Honors, which included 4,460 honors sections. Of these, we found that 59% were in the liberal arts, not counting interdisciplinary seminars, which accounted for another 26% of sections. Most of these seminars had a humanities focus, so about 85% of honors sections were in the liberal arts.
By discipline, English had the highest percentage of sections, even when sections in business, engineering, and technology are included. Math and business disciplines combined had about the same number of sections as English.
The STEM disciplines are strongly represented, however, accounting for 25% of honors sections. (But the science and math sections counted here are also part of the overall liberal arts group.)
Engineering and technology, considered separately, make up 8% of honors sections. Admittedly, the “regular” courses in these disciplines are usually rigorous enough in themselves.
Not all of the humanities are strongly represented, however, with classics, film, and religious studies combined counting for only 1.4% of honors sections. In fairness, the classics do feature prominently in many interdisciplinary seminars.