Like many humanities advocates, Abbey Drane was disheartened but not surprised when Florida's governor recently said its tax dollars should bolster science and high-tech studies, not "educate more people who can't get jobs in anthropology."
Drane, a 21-year-old anthropology major at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has spent years defending her choice to pursue that liberal arts field.
And now, as states tighten their allocations to public universities, many administrators say they're feeling pressure to defend the worth of humanities, too, and shield the genre from budget cuts. One university president has gone as far as donating $100,000 of her own money to offer humanities scholarships at her school.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott's comments last month cut to the heart of the quandary: whether emphasizing science, math and medical fields gives students the best career prospects and a high-tech payback to society, and whether humanities fields are viewed as more of an indulgence than a necessity amid tight budget times.
"You can definitely feel the emphasis on campus, even just based on where the newest buildings go, that there is a drive toward the sciences, engineering and (the) business school," said Drane, a senior from Plymouth, Mass. "I'm constantly asked what job opportunities I'll have in anthropology or what I'm going to do with my degree, and I tell people that it's giving me a skill set and critical thinking you can apply to anything."
Humanities studies peaked in U.S. colleges in the 1960s and started dwindling in the 1970s as more students pursued business and technology and related fields. Today, more than 20 percent of each year's bachelor's degrees are granted in business; in humanities, it's about 8 percent.
Liberal arts colleges, too, have declined. A study published in 2009 by Inside Higher Ed said that of 212 liberal arts colleges identified in 1990, only 137 were still operating by 2009.
At Amherst College in western Massachusetts, a healthy endowment makes closing the doors a remote possibility at best. But its president, Carolyn "Biddy" Martin, experienced the same concerns about the humanities in her previous job as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and was tapped this year to serve on a commission for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences to review the issue.
Martin said many universities struggle with declining enrollment in those fields, making the classes an easy budget target if their worth is not defended.
"There are more and more people in higher education — and I hope political leaders — who are understanding that an over-leaning emphasis on the sciences to the expense of the humanities is not a good thing for the country," she said.
Therein lays the debate for many, though, including Gov. Scott in Florida, who is unapologetic about his push to direct tax dollars toward rapidly growing science, technology, engineering and math fields, known collectively as STEM.
And since state governments control nearly two-thirds of all higher education funding, according to the National Governors Association, their embrace or disregard for humanities can affect the study paths of hundreds of thousands of students.
The governors' organization published recommendations for states this year on how to align their higher education priorities with their labor markets and economic development, citing Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio and Washington for "bold, comprehensive strategies" in those efforts.
It did not advise state governments to move money from humanities, but said it's "often challenging" to get the universities to participate in economic development, partly because of "their emphasis on broad liberal arts education."
Advocates say STEM fields also provide tangible returns for states, universities and businesses through patent royalties, new products and the prestige of achieving scientific breakthroughs — paybacks far less evident among, say, new intellectual insights by scholars of Geoffrey Chaucer's literature, devotees of Frederic Chopin's nocturnes or adherents to Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist views.
"People feel like there are no real careers open for people studying in the liberal arts and I don't think that's true at all," said John Beck, 20, a senior from Newton, Mass., who's majoring in philosophy at the University of Connecticut.
His father and two grandparents are doctors, and his mother and brother are both pharmaceutical scientists. He is double majoring in economics and plans to attend law school, a decision that eased his parents' concerns about his philosophy studies because they see a legal career as a tangible way to support himself.
He sees it as a good use of his philosophy degree, too, though he says he would have been perfectly content to pursue teaching, public service or other fields to which many other philosophy majors gravitate.
To Susan Herbst, students shouldn't have to choose between picking a field they love and one that offers them the best shot at a job. She believes humanities does both, and feels so strongly about it that she and her husband donated $100,000 this year to provide scholarships limited to students in those fields.
"The humanities are where people learn about ethics and values and critical thinking," said Herbst, the president of the University of Connecticut. "The truth is that for all of these students going into the STEM fields or other social sciences or business, if they didn't have the humanities, they don't know why they're doing what they do. The humanities really teach us how we're supposed to live and why what we do matters."
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