A June headline in The Wall Street Journal has sparked some fierce academic debate. 

Its gist?  That – oh woe is us! – undergrad enrollment in the humanities is declining, while majors in more “practical” subjects, from engineering and mathematics to biology and chemistry, are on the upswing.  [These facts were gathered from reports out of Harvard, the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, U.S. Census Bureau, among others.]

The reasons for this trend should be crystal clear:  Ever-increasing cost of tuition.  Staggering student debt levels.  An economy that rewards hard knowledge, not softer skills.

There’s a but, and a big one:  Academics and statisticians alike point out:

  • Compared to the increased numbers of Americans who do go to college today, the relative decline in English and philosophy and history majors is modest.
  • What’s hurting now:  Graduate humanities education, along with its prestige and funding.

To us, the facts are merely fodder for what’s wrong, deep down.  Whether in The Chronicle of Higher Education or in The New York Times, few of these posts and editorials talk about the business need for liberal arts majors.  The crisis, it seems to us, is in proving that humanistic studies lead to critical thinking and writing skills.  Sure, corporations and many of us lament the decline in intellectual literacy, and often take it upon ourselves to improve our staff’s skillsets.  And definitely, we can point to many humanistically trained successful business people, from the late Stanley Marcus to Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs.  [Admission:  We too majored in English and philosophy and journalism.]

Yet:  Until we can show proof that liberal arts education impacts bottom lines, our employers and our clients will continue to look for those techies who just might need hours and hours of remedial training in writing and thinking.  And it will be up to us in marketing and communications to fix it.