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There's Still Hope For Lovers Of Art, Anthropology And The Humanities

Lee Cullum, Commentator

A growing trend at America’s colleges: Humanities majors are on the decline. Commentator Lee Cullum explains why that's cause for concern.

A couple of weeks ago, I chanced to meet two natives of Britain, a former diplomat who’s now a political consultant and a professor who teaches MBA students how to do marketing in developing countries. The fascinating thing to me was this: Both of these practical people had majored in medieval studies, one at Oxford, the other Cambridge.

This is coming to an end, if not in England, then certainly in the U.S.

The New York Times has reported that seven percent of college students now major in the humanities—half the number that did so in 1970.

Granted, the big decline occurred before 1985, but the current economy is bound to be steering more and more anxious sophomores into the perceived safety of science and engineering, or perhaps communications. Many feel they cannot afford the luxury of English literature in the punishing job market that stretches before them. 

We need more engineers in this country. And surely former Navy secretary Gordon England was right when he told a gathering at SMU’s Tower Center that technology was the place to be. The startling discoveries have only begun to be made, he proclaimed.

True. But while it all adds up to a highly productive economy for those lucky enough to be working in it, Dr. Sandra Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for Brain Health, worries in a recent book that it also can lead to impairment of the brain for those who overdo the technological life. Impoverishment of the spirit is possible too, bringing to the growing generation of technocrats' stupefaction of their sense and sensibility.

What they will want, I believe, is oases of literature, history, archaeology and music, both Mozart and the astonishing creativity of Tod Machover and his electronic hyperinstruments.

So the opportunity will be considerable for places like the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture, where I’m a fellow, as well as museums, and performance and religious groups. The extent to which they become true teachers, not propagandists or proselytizers, will determine the ultimate extent of their success.  Much of this is being done right now, but it more will be needed.

This does not mean that universities can shut down their humanities departments, as some are doing in some cases, and redirect the funds to science. Even for engineering majors, they should be required to take courses in what we might call the soft power of the marketplace. Continuing education will become a great deal more  important and also a growing revenue center if the right teaching assets are deployed there. Also, refugees from high tech will crave real contact with real people, and relief from life online.

So weep no more, lovers of art, anthropology and all the rest. You moment has not passed. It’s just being transposed to a different time and place in the lives of Americans.

Lee Cullum is a writer and journalist from Dallas.