“We have to make the offerings really good, really enriching,” Satz says. “Part of our challenge is when students see so many of their peers going into computer science.”
To help guide the course selection of incoming students, Grinnell sent a booklet to all freshmen this past summer that outlined the importance of a broad liberal-arts education. The college also added a session on the topic to orientation in advance of students meeting their academic advisers. Both initiatives, Kington said, were intended to encourage students to select courses across a range of academic disciplines, given that Grinnell lacks a traditional core curriculum with mandated requirements.
Macalester’s tactic has been to try to inject some humanities into STEM classes and some practical career training into the humanities. Last year, Rosenberg, the school’s president, brought the faculty together at a retreat to discuss the shifting balance of majors. One outcome was that faculty members were encouraged to pair together courses across academic disciplines so that, for example, a new class in social media might be a blend of computer science and philosophy. Professors in the humanities were also encouraged to give their students more career guidance than in the past, when many humanities students simply went to graduate school or law school after college.
“The typical English major is designed to get students to go to graduate school,” Rosenberg says. “We need to rethink the curriculum so that it’s more focused on what employers will immediately find attractive.”
Rosenberg was present when several presidents of elite colleges gathered last fall for a meeting in New York City. At our table during lunch, there was a debate about whether the changing distribution of majors was really a crisis. After all, at least at liberal-arts colleges, the humanities remain a central part of the curriculum, including for STEM majors. Indeed, Satz of Stanford says she’s less concerned about the 14 percent drop in humanities majors at the university over the past decade, and more focused on the 20 percent increase in enrollment in humanities courses.
“There’s only so much we can do to stem the tide in majors,” she says. “What I care about is that every student in engineering can think critically, can read carefully, and they can listen empathetically. That happens by taking courses in the humanities.”
Rosenberg, an English professor and Charles Dickens scholar by training, agrees. He says he doesn’t blame students for flocking to computer science and applied mathematics. Mathematical literacy and the ability to manipulate large data sets are becoming more critical in every job, including those the humanities traditionally trained, from journalists to sociologists. “We’re not giving students enough credit,” Rosenberg says. “They’re picking something that’s really interesting to them.”