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Humanities professors across the country have ceaselessly lamented the precipitous decline in undergraduate humanities majors in recent years. During the decade following the Great Recession of 2008, the number of humanities bachelor’s degree recipients fell by a whopping 14 percent — from a peak of about 236,000.

The humanities field has not recovered from that free fall, recently published data from the National Center for Education Statistics show. The drop in humanities majors and a significant and simultaneous rise in the number of STEM graduates show that students have altered their understanding of what they should study to achieve success in the post-collegiate job market.

Related: With enrollment sliding, liberal arts colleges struggle to make a case for themselves

Since 2008, those of us who are champions of the humanities have offered a simple yet profound truth: Studying humanities endows students with a capacity for critical thinking, a skill essential to individual accomplishment and crucial to societal well-being.

But that simple truth doesn’t seem to be changing anyone’s mind. While fundamental for an engaged citizenry, facility in critical thinking does not fully register as a concrete professional or life skill. It’s certainly not something that many students are seeking as part of their academic experience. Some, in fact, dismiss critical thinking altogether as insubstantial fluff or as a negligible “soft skill.”

Many students remain completely oblivious of the elements that comprise critical thinking, from observation and analysis to problem solving and communication. Practices cultivated in humanities study substantially advance these skills, but those practices have long been underpromoted by the professors and students doing the work. That must change now that the field has been given a tremendous opportunity: training our next generation of social justice leaders.

The number of students expressing interest in fields associated with social justice has seen a monumental increase since the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020. The trend accelerated with that summer’s Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd.

By July 2021, 72 percent of undergraduates said that their awareness of social justice issues had increased over the preceding year, and just under half reported that their involvement in social justice efforts was impacting their career choices, according to a survey by Best Colleges. Fifty-one percent said their social justice activism had affected their coursework choices.

The country’s next generation of leaders is pushing for racial equity, economic equality, disability justice and gender and sexual liberation; to succeed they will need the observational and analytical skills that can be developed by studying ideas, historical events, aesthetic works and cultural practices.

Related: OPINION: How a new generation of students are responding to Black America’s echoes

If we want to attract these socially engaged students to the humanities study, we must frame its benefits, not in terms of abstract critical-thinking skills, but in terms of the specific practices that humanities students are trained to engage in. These include everything from interviewing and archival research to textual interpretation, discourse analysis and ethnographic inquiry. In addition to enabling the assessment and synthesis of information drawn from a wide variety of sources, humanities practices equip us to diagnose — and devise methods to address — the conditions that hinder the achievement of a fully just and equitable society.

They are therefore invaluable within a host of interesting and impactful professions. Miriam Hamburger, a 2017 religious studies graduate from Occidental College, is a good example. She researches ethical issues related to collections of ancestral remains for the GRASSI Museum in Leipzig, Germany. Caroline Condren, a 2013 English BA recipient from Colorado College, works as a senior development and communications manager at a documentary film company that melds content production and social advocacy. Don Taylor, who graduated with an English degree from Morehouse College in 2013, currently serves as senior director of talent recruitment for Uncommon Schools, preparing underrepresented students for college and beyond.

To succeed, [the country’s next generation of leaders] will need the observational and analytical skills that can be developed by studying ideas, historical events, aesthetic works and cultural practices.

Educators can no longer afford to be shy about publicizing the practical skills their humanities students develop or the careers humanities graduates succeed in. It is for this reason that the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation created its new Humanities for All Times initiative, which has awarded more than $16 million to 12 liberal arts colleges to develop curricula that clearly articulate the distinctive aims and methods of humanities analysis. These curricula are also intended to demonstrate the importance of such analysis within social justice work.

This initiative should increase the total number of undergraduates pursuing humanities study. Most crucially, it will contribute to the creation of a more equitable and just society for all.

Phillip Brian Harper is an author and scholar who currently serves as Higher Learning Program director for The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The former dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University, Harper graduated from the University of Michigan and went on to earn an MFA in creative writing and an MA and PhD in English at Cornell.

This story about humanities education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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