Report urges increased investment in humanities and social sciences

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Amid decreasing enrollment and waning interest in humanities courses across the country, a national humanities commission delivered a report to lawmakers in Washington on Wednesday that makes a case for the study and research of the humanities and social sciences.

The report, which included input from more than 50 academics, business leaders and influential figures from across the humanities and social sciences, seeks to combat the idea that study of the humanities and social sciences is irrelevant in a time of greater economic opportunity for fields in science, engineering, technology and math. It includes suggestions for increased investment in research, more support for teachers and expansion of study abroad and exchange programs.

The commission, requested by a bipartisan group of national legislators in 2010 and organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, includes former UC Berkeley chancellors Robert Birgeneau and Robert Berdahl as well as Tom Campbell, former dean of the Haas School of Business.

Although the percentage of college students graduating with a bachelor’s degree in the humanities has fallen by more than 50 percent since the 1960s, UC Berkeley professor of history Martin Jay said the humanities are as relevant now as they have ever been.

“Humanities are laboratories for explorations of culture,” Jay said. “The humanities also give us the opportunity to ask questions, which, when we get into a narrow job, we never get to ask again. It’s a serious initiation into adulthood for which I hope that more students would have training and exposure.”

Support for the humanities at UC Berkeley remains fairly robust, according to UC Berkeley professor of English Colleen Lye. However, this contrasts with a national trend of decreased support for the humanities amid increased demand for STEM fields, reinforced by some families’ pragmatic instincts in a time of perceived economic difficulty.

“The endless recession, or so-called jobless recovery, since 2008 has tended to make people — parents as well as the students themselves — more instrumental in their attitudes toward higher education,” Lye said.

In addition to concerns about the economic viability of majoring in the humanities or social sciences, Jay attributes falling interest in the fields in part to a diversification of humanities curriculums around the country.

“For a while, at least, there was a fairly broad consensus about what the humanities should teach, and this was broadly associated with the Western texts, but we’ve learned to be suspicious of that formation of the humanities,” Jay said.

Contact Chris Yoder at [email protected].