A recent New York Times article discusses the decline of humanities in colleges, with only 8% of students nationwide majoring in the humanities. Students apparently want courses of study that will lead more directly to a job; the lowest percentage of students in the humanities was during the economic crisis of the ’80s.

I remember reading an article a few years ago that discussed how Dartmouth students were lobbying for more content in their classes that would be directly applicable to a job; this article reminded me of that one. At the time, I thought it was ridiculous, because there are many good reasons to get a liberal arts education, and job training was never supposed to be one of them.

The article points out that students at Williams have no such qualms studying the humanities — I have tried to determine the percentage of humanities majors at Williams, but have been unsuccessful; I suppose it is way above the 8% average, something above 25%. Williams actually has a center for humanities called the Oakley Center for the Humanities, and as such the article deftly quotes Mr. Oakley himself:

The humanities continue to thrive in elite liberal arts schools. But the divide between these private schools and others is widening. Some large state universities routinely turn away students who want to sign up for courses in the humanities, Francis C. Oakley, president emeritus and a professor of the history of ideas at Williams College, reported. At the University of Washington, for example, in recent years, as many as one-quarter of the students found they were unable to get into a humanities course.

I think that a humanities education and the accompanying analytic and intellectual skills one learns from it are a rare and precious opportunity. I am currently extending that opportunity as I study graduate-level pure mathematics, which is not considered a humanities discipline, but was one of the original liberal arts. I think that any time that a student can spend studying ideas for the sake of studying them, and really delving deeply into them, is time well spent developing the mind.

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