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Harvard seeks to boost student interest in the humanities

Amid declining enrollment in the humanities in favor of more career-oriented paths, Harvard University is seeking to rekindle interest in literature, philosophy, and the classics, a broad effort that will focus on first-year students.

In a report being issued Thursday, faculty called for “gateway courses” to draw students into the field, including a full-year survey course designed for freshmen and sophomores, and for a “collective reboot” of teaching in the humanities.

The report comes at a time when a liberal arts education is increasingly seen as impractical given soaring tuition costs and a tight job market, even for college graduates.

As students gravitate toward economics and other social sciences, often as springboards to business careers, advisers need to emphasize that majoring in the humanities can lead to any number of careers, Harvard faculty wrote.


“Students are understandably concerned about their eventual employment prospects,” one proposal states. “But Harvard students are generally unaware of how many employers seek graduates with strong humanities training.”

The report takes aim at the declining number of Harvard students who major in the humanities, which also include English, religion, and romance languages. Since 2003, the number majoring in the humanities dropped from 21 percent to 17 percent, and the number who considered such majors has fallen off sharply.

Over the past eight years, more than half of students who said before arriving at Harvard that they planned to concentrate in the humanities wound up choosing another major, the report found. Many went on to major in government, history, psychology, or economics, and surveys showed that many students changed course in their freshman year.

“We conclude from these statistics that we should be focusing our efforts on the freshman experience, which is where we lose a striking number of students who matriculate with an intention to concentrate in a humanities discipline,” the report stated.


More than 40 faculty members worked over the past 18 months on the report, which was prompted by concern about declining enrollment.

Last year, 46 percent of students majored in the social sciences, followed by 37 percent in the fields of science, math, and technology — up from 27 percent a decade earlier.

“It’s a trend we’ve been detecting in the last 10 years,” said Diana Sorensen, dean of arts and humanities, who commissioned the report. “There’s a way in which the liberal arts get undermined by a more instrumental view of education.”

The experience at Harvard mirrors a national trend, as the number of bachelor’s degrees in the humanities has steadily declined in recent years.

“We’re answering to a national sense of unease,” said James Simpson, chairman of the English department, who co-wrote the report.

At Harvard, students who decide to major in the humanities nearly always remain in that concentration, Simpson said, and report higher levels of satisfaction with their major than other students.

“We don’t have a crisis, but we do have a challenge,” Simpson said. “We have high levels of allegiance and satisfaction, but somehow the humanities are not pulling in students whose intellectual curiosity makes them initially interested.”

The report also called for an internship program to show students that a liberal arts degree can lead to a variety of careers.

An education based on the humanities helps students navigate a world marked by rapid change and digital advances, Sorensen said.


“The arts and humanities are unique in their potential to help students develop the skills and wisdom needed to thrive in the digitized, globalized, discovery-driven economy of the 21st century,” she wrote.

Peter Schworm can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globepete.