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2013 Fall Issue 3 (October 11, 2013)

The Humanities, Pre-Professional Tracks, and You

October 11, 2013
By J.M. Hanley

“Times do not adapt themselves to men,” Frederick II of Prussia is said to have declared.  “Men must adapt themselves to the times.”

These days, or so the popular narrative runs, it is historians themselves – along with students of religion and literary enthusiasts – who should most urgently heed the great king’s words and adapt.  The almost clichéd explosion of technology, scientific progress, and economic interdependence in the Information Age have combined to contribute to the ascendancy of STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

At the same time, the ragged state to which the Great Recession reduced so many fresh-faced B.A. bearers has cast an uncomfortably vocational light upon the Best Four Years of Your Life.

Consequently, each week the news pronounces a new Buzzfeed-style list – “Top 10 Majors for Exciting Careers,” “These Majors are Making Six Figures,” etc. – that underscores the importance of STEM fields to undergraduates, and by extension, the rising irrelevance of the humanities.

The hullabaloo, however, has hardly penetrated the staid corridors of Leighton and Laird, at least as far as students are concerned.  The number of history majors has barely budged from its pre-recession levels.  The same is true of religion.  And while English majors are a more rare breed than they once were, their decline is a shift that Department Chair Timothy Raylor attributes to the spinning off of the Theater and CAMS departments as well as new curricular requirements.

Beneath the surface, however, a number of Carleton’s humanities departments are engaging in a slow pivot to more fashionable subject material. 

It’s a quest that Professor Michael McNally underscores isn’t intended to alleviate “fears about enrollment pressures” so much as it is to better align the offerings of the departments with the interests of STEM-oriented Millenials.

In McNally’s own department, faculty have begun making efforts to tie contemplation of the Divine to studies of international relations, ENTS, and Pre-Med.

The goal, he said, is to “help them think in a more fine grained fashion about religion.”

Religion’s downstairs neighbors are pursuing similar aims. 

“The explosion of interest in ENTS has encouraged us all to think more about environmental history,” said History Professor Serena Zabin.

That, in turn, has prompted an explosion of activity.  The recent hiring of Assistant Professor Amna Khalid, a public health history specialist, has enabled the department to develop an environmental and public health history subfield alongside more traditional offerings such as U.S History, Ancient and Medieval History, and History of Early Modern Europe, according to Zabin.

Indeed, in fall term alone, three history selections – American Food and Farms, Medicine and Disease, and American Environmental History – address the relationship between humans and their habitat.

Even in the English department, long the refuge of timeless classics, changes have been afoot. Raylor notes that residents of Second Laird “have been keen contributors to ENTS since well before the STEM push,” with courses such as Forces of Nature, a 200-level winter term option this year. 

More recently, faculty have beefed up their offerings in rhetoric – “courses on writing and speaking” with titles like “The Art of Persuasion” and “The Art of Oral Presentation” – which have proved popular among science majors, according to Raylor. 

Selections like these might satisfy the vocationally-minded rankers of Forbes and Yahoo.  However, Raylor, Zabin, and McNally were adamant that the humanities should not, and will not, die nor fade away.

Zabin assailed “the faulty emphasis on the humanities faculty as the ones who need to ‘fix a problem.’ ”

“Effective communication…cultural literacy, and global engagement are all essential parts of the liberal arts mission,” she said, “Our job is to remind anxious students that everything they learn at Carleton will contribute to their intellectual maturity.”

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