Opinion: Why business needs the humanities: Focusing on STEM degrees has its own economic cost

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Students and pedestrians walking along Gould St. on the Toronto Metropolitan University campus on Jan 22.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ira Wells teaches in the Vic One program of the University of Toronto.

Imagine you are 17 years old and bound for university. You were born in 2006, two years before the economic meltdown. You are smart, industrious and, if we’re being honest, a little freaked about the future. Your life has played out against the drumbeat of disruption, economic precarity, skyrocketing real-estate prices, a youth mental health crisis and a global pandemic.

You’ve heard that AI is coming for the jobs. You know a “career,” singular, is a relic of the boomer past. And you know – because this has been drilled into you since entering your first classroom – that STEM skills, especially coding, will be your meal ticket. The humanities – art, literature, philosophy, history – are interesting subjects, sure, but stuff you can explore on your own time (or not). Your parents have probably made this clear.

You are far from alone. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAA&S), the traditional humanities subjects of English, history, philosophy and foreign languages and literature amounted to 4 per cent of postsecondary degrees in 2020. At many name-brand American institutions – Tufts, Notre Dame, Boston University – humanities graduates have declined by half since 2012.

According to Rob Townsend, director of the humanities, arts and culture program at the AAA&S, “we’re reaching a kind of existential tipping point for a lot of departments that could lead to their elimination.”

Things aren’t much better in Canada. As a share of all postsecondary students, humanities enrollments have dropped by 50 per cent over the last 30 years, according to data from Statistics Canada. Even as overall postsecondary enrollments have dramatically grown, the humanities have continued to shrink.

“Between 2010-11 and 2020-21, enrollment in humanities was down 27 per cent,” states the 2023 annual report of Higher Education Strategy Associates, “while social sciences increased by 17 per cent, business by 16 per cent, health by 26 per cent, engineering by 43 per cent and science by 47 per cent.”

Traditional thinking once held that the health of the humanities tracked with the economy. Yet as Nathan Heller observed in a much-discussed New Yorker article, “The End of the English Major,” that has

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