Here’s a quote that’s been making the rounds lately:
The death of the humanities and the disciplines that promote â€œthought”â€”the majors in which have declined in real terms to less than 10% of college majors, with business expanding to 22%â€”results not from a loss of interest in the humanities but from the material interests that confront students.
So which majors are we talking about? There’s a debate raging in the comments of the Valve about the relative merits of a humanities degree compared to, say, biochemistry. Is biochem what Jeffrey Williams is talking about when he says most majors don’t promote thought? The example he offers as a non-thought-provoking major is “business.” I’d say there’s a long way from biochem to business: is Williams really lamenting the rise of biochemistry here? I wish Williams had provided figures from the liberal arts as a whole — or maybe that’s what the ten percent represents. A quick Google search did not reveal the percentage of students graduating with liberal arts degrees. Rather than search deeper, let’s see if we can guess what Williams means.
At Davidson College, which seems pretty typical to me, majors are offered in the following fields: Anthropology, Art, Biology, Chemistry, Classics, Economics, Education, English, French, German, History, Interdisciplinary Studies, Mathematics, Music, Philosophy, Physics, Political Science, Psychology, Religion, Sociology, Spanish, Theatre. Clearly Williams isn’t dissing humanities, so let’s get rid of those disciplines and see what remains: Anthropology, Biology, Chemistry, Economics, Education, Interdisciplinary Studies, Mathematics, Physics, Political Science, Psychology. Now I don’t think anyone would agree that “education” falls within the traditional liberal arts — it’s clearly an intrusion of careerism into Davidson’s curriculum, so we can remove that as well. Let’s also remove the noncommital Interdisciplinary Studies. Now we’re left with just eight: Anthropology, Biology, Chemistry, Economics, Mathematics, Physics, Political Science, Psychology. Let’s take these one at a time:
Anthropology. Somehow I don’t think Williams views this as a careerist major. Plus it’s not going to inflate the overall numbers much. We can safely assume anthropology promotes “thought.”
Biology. This is a tough one — biology is a broad discipline. Lots of biology majors go on to become doctors, so in a sense, this could be viewed as just an arm of the capitalist system, not a really thought-provoking discipline. Some might argue that biology is really a matter of memorization rather than serious analytical work you do in the humanities. On the other hand, biology includes ecology, field work, and understanding the very nature of life. I think we have to let this one slide into the thought-provoking disciplines.
Chemistry. I have a soft spot for chemistry since I’m certified to teach it in high school. On the one hand, chemistry helps us understand the very nature of the physical world around us, but on the other hand, it’s perilously close to engineering. They even have a subdiscipline of engineering called “chemical engineering.” Overall, though, chemistry majors don’t really learn about chemical processes that industry is especially interested in; it’s much more general than that. We’ll let chemistry slide, too.
Economics. Oooh. This is almost “business.” While there are plenty of thoughtful economists, I think we have to move this discipline into the non-thought-provoking category.
Mathematics. This discipline is incredibly tough — both to categorize, and to complete. There are really very few pure math majors — the discipline is just too hard. But if you do manage to graduate with a degree in mathematics, you will have no trouble finding a job. Still, I think we have to count mathematics as promoting thought. Math is in.
Physics. Like chemistry, perilously close to engineering. Still, it’s perhaps less applied than chemistry, and allows us to ponder mysteries such as the origin of the universe. I think physics is in.
Political Science. While political science at first glance would appear to be an eminently practical discipline, much like business, in practice it can also be taught more like political philosophy. You almost need to divide this major in half. If it was “government,” it would definitely be out, but I think we need to let political science slide in.
Psychology. Ah! We save the best for last. Again, psychology can be very applied: counseling, industrial, educational. But there’s lots of pure research there as well (see Cognitive Daily). Unfortunately, much as I hate to do it, I think we have to put psychology out. Most people take psychology not to learn how the mind works, but how to get a job.
So here’s my best guess at the disciplines, outside of the humanities, that Williams is likely referring to as promoting “thought”: Anthropology, Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics, and Political Science. Other than Biology, I doubt these add much to that 10 percent figure, so I think Williams’ larger point still stands: that by shifting to a debt-financed college education we are compromising the values of that education. Instead of promoting thought, we are promoting job training. Even at a school like Davidson, by selecting your courses right, you can get an education that doesn’t really encourage you to think beyond where your next dollar is coming from. And if you’re borrowing upwards of $100,000 to pay for that education, who’s to blame you if you do?