Education in the Humanities Faces a Precarious Future


Emily Walsh

Fewer students are enrolling in humanities courses, indicating a decline in reading, writing, and communication skills.

With the rapid development of the modern world, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers are taking over the nation. As the purpose of education shifts to solely focus on preparing students for these careers, majors outside of STEM are declining. The New Yorker reports that enrollment in English and history courses have fallen by a third on college campuses across the United States. However, what is the state of the humanities at Benilde-St. Margaret’s?

Firstly, one must understand the cause of such a trend at a national level. The decline in the humanities has emerged under the misconception that STEM careers are inherently higher earning than those based in the humanities. Dr. Katherine Scheil, an English professor at the University of Minnesota, explained that she has noticed such a fallacy among her students.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about the humanities and earning potential, but there’s a lot of data to support the fact that humanities graduates do better than many science graduates,” Schiel said in an email interview.

Schiel is correct in her assertion that earning potential doesn’t necessarily favor STEM majors. While it is true that these fields of study often have higher starting salaries, they begin to balance out with humanities majors mid-career. According to The New York Times, the average salary for male computer science and engineering majors between 23 and 24 is $61,744, roughly 37 percent higher than those in the humanities. By the time these same majors reached the age of 40, their average salary was $124,458. Conversely, humanities majors started with lower salaries but reached a slightly higher average salary of $131,154 by the age of 40. This trend was consistent for women in the same fields. Yet the misconception that humanities are unable to prepare one for high-paying careers still persists.

While not necessarily tied directly to earnings, a similar decline in the humanities is visible at BSM. Although English is required for all four years and social studies for three and a half, the difference in enrollment in humanities electives versus STEM and business courses is drastic. According to the master course tallies for the upcoming school year, 486 students are enrolled in business classes, 278 in engineering classes, and 130 in Biomedical science classes over the course of two semesters. That is 894 students enrolled in STEM electives in addition to their required math and science classes. Compared to this, there are 110 students enrolled in English electives, excluding seniors who enroll in two semesters of English electives to earn their required credit.

Although there still is a slight decline in the arts, their numbers are stronger than in the humanities, sitting at 648 enrollments over the course of two semesters for next year. The numbers are distributed quite evenly among all four grades with 354 enrollments for underclassmen and 294 for upperclassmen.

Despite this stark difference in elective courses, there are positive signs that students are taking required English courses seriously. More students are opting to take honors and AP-level classes to fill their requirement. “When I started there were only three sections of honors nine and three sections of honors 10. Now there are four sections of honors nine, and next year there might even be five sections of honors 10 because we’ve diversified and we have both a classic honors 10 option and a contemporary honors 10 option. So with that increase comes more interest,” English department chair Katie Belanger said.

English courses senior year, although required, are entirely elective based, meaning students select from a variety of options from Mythology to AP Literature to Film Studies. Belanger explained that this system was chosen based on the curriculum distribution from freshman to senior year. “In English classes, by nature of the subject, we are reading and writing no matter what the content is. So even when I teach film studies, we’re reading film reviews and we’re writing essays analyzing classic films or we are creating oral presentations and teaching each other about different film genres… we just want kids reading and writing, and whether they’re doing that with science fiction literature, or Greek mythology or film doesn’t really matter to us as long as they’re practicing the skills that matter,” Belanger said.

Despite the greater freedom to choose English courses of interest, there has been a stagnation in elective options. While there are still a variety of classes offered, including science fiction, mythology, and creative writing, few students have expressed interest in proposed humanities electives. Additionally, many courses that have been offered in the past have died out simply because there isn’t enough interest to support the class. “For a number of years, we’ve tried to launch a Shakespeare class, which would really be fun because, for sure, you would be going to plays, performances of Shakespeare, and you would be watching movie versions of it….A long time ago, we used to have a class called Writer and Her Work, which solely just read women authors. That’s kind of gone by the wayside, as well,” English teacher Anne Marie Dominguez said.

Not only has enrollment in the humanities declined, but so has students’ willingness to participate. Dominguez noted that students seem to be far less willing to sit down and read lengthy pieces of literature. The idea that education is just the vehicle to a highly paying job seems to have trickled down to the high school level. “They seem to feel like the sciences should take precedence in terms of homework over the years because all you’re doing [in English classes] is reading… Having to do well in English courses is not seen as a necessity to do well as a career, so it feels like it’s becoming more of a chore for students as opposed to this is something to really have to be good at,” Dominguez said.

They seem to feel like the sciences should take precedence in terms of homework over the years because all you’re doing [in English classes] is reading… Having to do well in English courses is not seen as a necessity to do well as a career, so it feels like it’s becoming more of a chore for students as opposed to this is something to really have to be good at

— Anne Marie Dominguez

This lack of willingness to participate contributes heavily to the use of Artificial Intelligence to write essays, which is increasingly becoming an issue at BSM and other educational institutions. “The greatest challenge right now is staying ahead of Chat GPT and looking at AI as a tool and something we can use and something that companies are using to help people improve their writing, but it’s not a substitute for writing,” Senior High principal Stephanie Nitchals said.

Although students seem less willing to dedicate time to English outside of class, this doesn’t mean they are less willing to engage in the material. Belanger noted that students seem to have an interest in connecting literature to the real world. “[Students are] recognizing the connection between literature and life. I think that living in the type of world that we do today with high access to knowledge and high access to the internet, [and] access to world news and an ever-changing economy, kids are really sensitive to the world that we’re living in… Literature is a grounding and also universal way to access that in their own lives,” Belanger said.

Even if students are invested in the subject matter, there is still external pressure pushing them to take STEM classes that are perceived to best prepare them for college and a career. “The trend we’re seeing in the higher education system is that… parents are paying a ton of money for it, for [students’] college education… they want to see that the school that they’re going to is going to actually give their students a job… I think that’s kind of trickled down to high schools and [there is] pressure from the outside world, but also [there is] pressure that parents feel to say to their students ‘Okay, you need to take business classes and you need to take engineering, anything STEM related. Which then, that’s great, but then that doesn’t allow for students to also take some other things that they might have loved along the way like more English classes, more history classes, more music and art class,” college counselor Amanda Anderson said.

However, this narrative isn’t just fed by parents and colleges. In recent years, BSM has invested heavily in STEM with the addition of the biomedical science program, the engineering room, and an overall emphasis on hands-on work in spaces like the CUBE. “It’s turned out wonderful for those areas, but I do feel like when you do one project, then that really emphasizes that area and everybody else kind of feels like ‘okay, what about us?’… [the way] sometimes the different departments feel around here is that there’s not equal energy and [an equal] amount of money given to them, and I think it kind of reflects what’s happening in the larger society,” Anderson said.

This trend has seeped into professional development as well. Dominguez noted that in recent years she has not only noticed changes in what facilities the school has invested in but the departments as a whole. “There’s been a significant push in the past 10 years with STEM at this school, and it’s evidenced by the whole engineering facilities in the basement, and a lot of the ‘innovative teaching practices’ always seem to be based in the sciences or math as opposed to looking towards the humanities for ways of looking at teaching styles or teaching methods. That has been a very heavy emphasis with professional development with teachers, with marketing, with the school, all of that, so it has felt like the humanities have been really pushed to the side,” Dominguez said.

With the decline in the humanities, we are forced to ask the question: what is their significance? These courses are not solely to learn the skills of reading and writing. They help develop students’ critical thinking and communication abilities. These skills are fundamental to all aspects of society, regardless of career. “No matter what career you’re in, you will have to communicate whatever you are working on to other people, whether in written form or in speaking, and you can’t avoid that… I feel it’s kind of discouraging to see that element, although necessary and essential, not given the same weight as the content of the math and sciences,” Dominguez said.

No matter what career you’re in, you will have to communicate whatever you are working on to other people, whether in written form or in speaking, and you can’t avoid that… I feel it’s kind of discouraging to see that element, although necessary and essential, not given the same weight as the content of the math and sciences

— Anne Marie Dominguez

Additionally, learning to understand and cope with complex issues and emotions is a critical focal point of literature and the humanities in general. “Whenever you read fiction, it helps you to become more empathetic towards other people, because you’re just reading about other experiences of other people or in the insights and the feelings and all of that, which is super important for us to be compassionate and understanding,” Dominguez said.

Dominguez explained how the effects of a decreased ability to interpret messages and emotions is already being seen in the real world. Social media has shifted society away from the written word to crafted images and short snippets of information. However, this is only a portion of the full picture. “[Social Media users are] never dealing with the real issues, and so you see that they don’t know how to actually cope with feelings themselves,” Dominguez said.

If the humanities are such an essential part of education, what can be done to prevent its decline? Although the perception of these courses in education is a larger issue, there are things that can be done by schools to emphasize the importance of their topics and skills. Schiel explained that many of her students take her classes because they are interested in the topics being discussed, so she asserts that one of the best ways to bolster student enrollment in the humanities is to offer courses that interest them. Additionally, she supports a more liberal arts approach in which students are required to take humanities courses regardless of their major.

While many humanities course requirements are already in place at BSM, the administration added a human geography requirement for freshmen next year. “I think a human exposure, a [real] world, human exposure is a good place to start in history, and starting in ninth grade and not having a gap year [in history] is something we thought we should do,” Nitchals said.

In addition to course requirements, the school is looking to engage student interests in the humanities, focusing specifically on reading. “[BSM wants] to promote turning kids into habitual readers just for leisure even. We’re not trying to say, ‘Oh, you need to read this high lexicon level of 1500,’ but getting students into the habit of reading, which translates to a whole bunch of different things… It will trickle down into better comprehension, better automaticity, which is the speed [at] which kids can comprehend what they’re reading,” Dominguez said.

To do so, BSM has discussed ways in which it can cultivate a community that prioritizes reading and writing in all aspects of education. Dominguez noted that they have discussed incorporating designated reading time into homerooms for students to read material that interests them to create those reading habits. The administration is also attempting to implement more homework checks to ensure students are actually completing their reading assignments.

“There are several things that we’ve talked about potentially doing… [We’re looking into] setting time aside for reading and getting off of laptops and just spending time engaging with reading.
[We are] making sure that when we assign reading, that students are actually doing it.” Nitchals said.

Additionally, there has been discussion of how to better integrate writing into non-English classes. “One [idea] is working with the entire faculty… and helping them establish a standard of writing. It’s not like we would expect people in math or science to be able to correct the little details of students writing, but if [they] see it’s riddled with lack of capital letters and periods and sloppy spelling errors, that will be taken into account for your overall grade… it’s an effort to say this matters when you’re communicating… you have to meet a standard so that your credibility is established and your writing is clear and that your message is clear with punctuation and other details like that,” Dominguez said.

The administration is committed to maintaining a liberal arts education through these measures to best prepare students for the future. “[The humanities] are the foundations of a liberal arts education and we want to continue to do that because… no matter what you do in life, you have to be proficient at reading and writing,” Nitchals said.