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Jewish Journal

Is College Working? The Decline of the Humanities!

by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

June 13, 2012 | 5:16 am

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

As a campus educator who has taught students on more than 30 campuses around the country, I see how stressed students are to compete for grades, jobs, and organizational positions. Most students seem more focused on achievement than on their personal life search and intellectual journey. They are, of course, not to blame as a transactional culture has become overwhelming but we have much to fear for the future of the university and the intellectual culture of our country.

A recent study makes us question whether college is actually working to produce the results expected from such an expensive and time-consuming project. Sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, in their book Academically Adrift, report that 45 percent of college students have not improved their critical thinking and writing skills after two years, and 36 percent still have not improved after four years. What are these students paying so much for?

The cost of a single year in college has soared over the past generation. The College Board estimated that annual tuition and fees is $7,020 for public colleges and $26,273 for private colleges, along with room and board that can add $7,000-$9,000 or more, and expenses for educational materials. Not surprisingly, most students now have to take out student loans to help pay for college, and for the class of 2010, the average college student debt (for those who took out a loan) was $25,250. By 2012, outstanding student loans reached the $1 trillion mark, surpassing the total U.S. credit card debt. Future projections are even grimmer; at the current rate, college tuition will increase to $123,000 (public) and $288,000 (private) for four years by 2034, and Ivy League colleges will then cost $422,000.  What is it exactly that students are paying for?

Upon graduation, these students understandably want to pay back their debt and get a start on life. As a January 2012 report released by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce noted, recent college graduates who majored in the liberal arts earned less than many other majors, as the following Table indicates.

Recent College Graduate Unemployment and Average Annual Income (by Major)

Major Unemployment Rate (%) Annual Earnings ($)
Engineering 7.5 55,000
Computers and Mathematics 8.2 46,000
Health 5.4 43,000
Business 7.4 39,000
Education 5.4 33,000
Humanities (Liberal Arts) 9.4 31,000
Psychology/Social Work 7.3 30,000
Arts 11.1 30,000

It is not surprising that Engineer and Computer/Mathematics majors make more than those whose major was in the Humanities, Psychology/Social Work, or the Arts. However, Business majors, once dominant among the upwardly mobile, now have a much higher unemployment rate than Education majors, so not everything is predictable.

This trend, while apparently accelerating during the Great Recession, has been under way for more than a generation. During the early 1970s, the effect of college overexpansion and a stagnant economy dealt a serious blow to the Humanities, as there were now few academic positions available. From 1970-1982, for example, while the total number of undergraduate degrees increased by 11 percent, the number of degrees granted in the Humanities decreased dramatically:

Major Decline (%)
History 62
English 57
Philosophy 51
Modern Languages 50

Academic shifting, in addition to affecting our intellectual culture, impacts moral judgment. Studies have shown that college education has a positive influence on moral judgment, but this effect is significantly weaker for business students and is largely absent for accounting students (Cohen, Journal of Business Ethics, 2001). There is, of course, great importance to Mathematics and the sciences, but somehow the Humanities have gotten lost in the process.

Fortunately, the Humanities still have an array of champions. Conservative columnist David Brooks, for example, extols a liberal arts education for developing a progressively rare talent for reading and understanding the meaning of a paragraph, adding that it also enables you to write a coherent memo. He urges students to take advantage of the cumulative learning of many civilizations over millennia: “…doesn’t it make sense to spend some time in the company of these languages — learning to feel different emotions, rehearsing different passions, experiencing different sacred rituals and learning to see in different ways?”

Harvard Professor Michael J. Sandel takes a different approach. He notes with alarm that America has transformed from a market economy, in which monetary considerations were confined to economic issues, to a “market society,” which greatly expands the areas subject to the bottom line of economics. This has highlighted the gap between rich and poor and damaged the possibility of equal access to the political system. As Professor Sandel warns: “We are in the grip of a way of looking at the world and social life and even personal relations that is dominated by economic ways of thinking. That’s an impoverished way of looking at the world.”

Judaism has much to add to this defense of the Humanities. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, the great rosh yeshiva who also holds a PhD from Harvard in literature, has been a great defender of the Humanities: 

The contention that a Torah hashkafah (worldview) should sanction scientific studies to the exclusion of the humanities, as only they deal with God’s world, blithely ignores man’s position as part of that world. To the extent that the humanities focus upon man, they deal not only with a segment of divine creation but with its pinnacle. The dignity of man is not the exclusive legacy of Cicero and Pico della Mirandola. It is a central theme in Jewish thought, past and present. Deeply rooted in Scripture, copiously asserted by Hazal, unequivocally assumed by rishonim (medieval rabbis), religious humanism is a primary and persistent mark of a Torah Weltanschauung. Man’s inherent dignity and sanctity, so radically asserted through the concept of tzelem Elokim (humans created in the image of G-d); his hegemony and stewardship with respect to nature; concern for his spiritual and physical well-being; faith in his metaphysical freedom and potential—all are cardinal components of traditional Jewish thought…How, then can anyone question the value of precisely those fields which are directly concerned with probing humanity? (Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict, 245).

Rav Aharon reminds us that the study of philosophy, literature, and history can broaden our ethical, spiritual, and religious worldview as committed Jews. If one is going to take loans worth more than $100,000, one should take on the challenge to grow as a human being, not merely as a future worker. Training professionals but failing to teach humanity will destroy the creative fabric of our country.

How we, as adults, spend our leisure time helps to model for our children and students what values and activities they should cherish for their own sake. If we act as though we value money, prestige, and work more than relationships, ideas, and service we can only expect what lessons the next generation will learn from us. If we do not emphasize the importance of personal growth and intellectual search then we should not feel surprised if our children view the primary purpose of university as a way to increase their earning potential.

Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher, taught that one must “Accept the truth from wherever one finds it.” As Jews we must have the intrigue and humility to engage the great intellectual traditions that preceded us. The Torah, of course, takes primacy but as Rav Kook taught we must draw from all truths to “expand the palace of Torah.”


Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz...

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