HAMILTON, Ontario — On a sun-splashed quadrangle suffused with the enthusiasm of a new semester, Pearl Bakhtiari sat cross-legged on the grass and made a passionate case for her major in philosophy and minor in French.
“Our world is becoming more black and white every day,” said Bakhtiari, a third-year student here at McMaster University near Toronto. “The humanities add some color into that.”
She admitted that her choice of academic disciplines elicited anxiety from relatives and friends concerned about more practical issues, however.
“People are, like, ‘You’re studying what? How will you find a job?’”
It’s a fast-spreading skepticism that has resulted in significant drops in the number of students majoring in the humanities on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border.
At stake is not only whether people will be able to interpret Shakespeare, say advocates of subjects including English, history, language, philosophy, and the visual and performing arts. It’s the essential skills they say these fields teach, and that focus groups suggest employers want.
The proportion of students who major in the humanities has fallen from a high of nearly one in five to one in 20.
Now, after four years of planning, a new program at McMaster’s DeGroote School of Business proposes to make this connection more concrete. It’s a business major aimed at turning out what it says will be future corporate leaders, for which students also are required to take philosophy, language, culture and other humanities courses toward an eventual degree in business.
“We did the research about what employers are looking for and we kept coming back to the same things: critical thinking, communication, cultural perspective,” said Emad Mohammad, the director of the new program, called Integrated Business and Humanities. “But the School of Business couldn’t teach these skills. We didn’t have the in-house expertise to teach philosophy and history and English.”
It found a willing partner in the humanities department, which had been pushing the same idea for so long that Dean of Humanities Ken Cruikshank said the plan had been sitting in a drawer for nearly 20 years.
“When the business dean came in here to say he wanted to do this, I laughed and went to a file and said, ‘Here you go,’” Cruikshank said, blowing the dust off an imaginary document.
Such long-sought partnerships are serious matters and important potential lifelines for humanities faculties, including at McMaster, that are struggling to prove their relevance in the face of big enrollment declines.
Accounting and financial management professor Emad Mohammad and linguistics and languages professor Anna Moro came together from their separate academic worlds to create a combined program in business and humanities at McMaster University near Toronto. Photo: Steve Russell for The Hechinger Report
The proportion of students who major in the humanities in the United States has fallen from a high of nearly one in five in the late 1960s to one in 20 in 2015, the last year for which the figure is available, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
The trend is similar in Canada, where humanities enrollment plummeted by more than 5 percent — the biggest drop of any discipline — in just the one year ending in 2015, also the most recent period available, and where the share of students majoring in the humanities is an equally low one in 20, the government agency Statistics Canada reports
“It’s pressure from parents. ‘There are no jobs.’ You name it,” said Anna Moro, a linguistics and languages professor who teamed up with Mohammad to design the new program.
Even the outside experts who reviewed the Integrated Business and Humanities program for accreditation purposes, including a member of the McMaster sociology department, unanimously recommended dropping the word “humanities” from the name. (Backers fought for it, saying the incorporation of the humanities was the very thing that made their approach to business different.) And while the target for the first class was 80 students, only 51 signed on.
As associate dean of humanities, Moro is responsible for the challenging job of recruiting humanities majors. While many young prospects are attracted to the humanities, she said, “It was the parents who came to the recruitment events who were saying, ‘We’re going to check out nursing or engineering.’”
At a time of spiraling tuition, conceded Moro, it’s gotten harder to justify a major without an evident immediate financial benefit. Those parents “are worried about the economic and overall well-being of their children,” she said.
Emad Mohammad, director of the Integrated Business and Humanities program, welcomes the first students, at a reception also attended by professors who teach such disciplines as classics and philosophy. Mohammad says research found employers wanted skills taught by humanities courses the business school couldn’t offer on its own. Photo: Steve Russell for The Hechinger Report
They’re not entirely wrong. Right out of college, humanities majors in the United States earn an average of $5,000 a year less than professionals and pre-professionals, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and the Association of American Colleges & Universities, or AAC&U, which represents liberal-arts colleges. And while they catch up to and pull slightly ahead of those groups by the time they reach their 40s, they still make less over the course of their careers than engineers and people with degrees in the physical and natural sciences and math. In Canada, graduates from some humanities programs make half or less than half of what engineers and people with degrees in business administration earn, StatsCan found.
But these figures overlook the importance of the humanities as a foundation for all kinds of jobs, said Moro. “They miss the point that in the long run it’s the people with the liberal arts backgrounds who end up being CEOs,” she said.
Employers highly value what humanities majors learn in college, focus groups and surveys show. More than nine out of 10 say a job candidate’s capacity for thinking and communicating clearly and solving complex problems is more important than his or her major, according to an AAC&U poll. More than three-quarters favor applicants who understand other cultures.