Education critics often complain that too many people are going to college and majoring in impractical things. As Florida Governor Rick Scott put it, back in 2011, maybe the state should stop funding the liberal arts and social sciences because “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees. So when they get out of school, they can get a job.”

In fact, however, it appears American college students are increasingly choosing vocational-type majors, and leaving the humanities behind. According to David Brooks’s latest piece in the New York Times

A half-century ago, 14 percent of college degrees were awarded to people who majored in the humanities. Today, only 7 percent of graduates in the country are humanities majors. Even over the last decade alone, the number of incoming students at Harvard who express interest in becoming humanities majors has dropped by a third.

That’s right, seven percent.

Maybe that’s a problem. It’s difficult to pinpoint whether or not this is a problem for employment, of course—while organizations often complain that recent college graduates lack critical thinking skills, it’s hard to tie that directly to the decline in humanities studies—but it might very well become troublesome for American society in general.

As Brooks writes:

Back when the humanities were thriving, the leading figures had a clear definition of their mission and a fervent passion for it. The job of the humanities was to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul, or, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, “the dark vast forest.”

The humanist’s job was to cultivate this ground — imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.

And if America lacks that, well, what is all this education even for, anyway?

If we don’t have perspective on our civilization, and an individual’s place within it, a focus on STEM majors, and creating policy “so when they get out of school, they can get a job” starts to look pretty empty. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer