Humanities Students Take On Additional ‘Practical’ Minors

February 26, 2014 2:05 am1 comment


This article is the second in a series about the state of humanities at Cornell, as part of The Daily Sun Dialogues, a new digital project launched this week. Read more about the state of humanities at

This semester, Maris Hansen ’16 is taking six classes — astronomy, French, two courses on finance, one on comparative inequality and one on immigration policy. But only the last two courses will go toward her government major; the rest, she said, are for her more “practical” minors in business, international relations and law and society.

“The business aspect came in after long, long discussions with my mother,” Hansen said. “My family agrees that I should study something I truly care about and am passionate about, but they wanted me to also do something practical and employable — something I could fall back on.”


Goldwin Smith Hall, which houses the College of Arts and Sciences, is a prominent humanities building on campus. (ANTHONY CHEN / sun staff photographer)

Hansen is not alone. In recent years, Cornell has seen an increasing number of humanities majors factoring in career preparation when deciding on minors, second majors and courses in which to enroll, professors say.

Though the number of students majoring in the humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences has been consistent over the years — 28 percent of students in 1981 and 24 percent in 2013 — the number of students adding minors rose from 180 students in 2009 to 288 students in 2013, according to data provided by the College.

Clara Ann Joyce ’15, a classical studies major, said she decided to also minor in business — in addition to Italian and horticulture — because it is a “practical minor.”

“My parents had always said, ‘you’re a classics major, but you do have to get a job eventually. What are you going to do with that?’”

Nate Jara ’16, a government major and near eastern studies minor, said he has also tried to make himself more appealing to potential employers in the intelligence community. For Jara, this was by way of taking Farsi, a language that he believes is currently among the most “marketable” in the intelligence community.

“I had to do a language for Arts and Sciences, but in terms of the one I went with, it was a decision I came to after doing research on what’s best for the career field I’m interested in,” Jara said.

Among students majoring in the humanities — including foreign languages, literature, philosophy, religion and anthropology — professors say they have seen an increase in students adding second majors and minors in areas such as business and economics, that students believe are more likely to prepare them for their careers.

This trend is not limited to Cornell, according to Pauline Yu, president of the American Council of Learned Societies, a nonprofit organization that seeks to strengthen relations among humanities scholars.

“In my contact with various programs around the country, I have heard that this phenomenon is very popular with students interested in humanities who want to hedge their bets,” Yu said.

Prof. Annetta Alexandridis, director of undergraduate studies for art history, said she has seen more students in her department double-major in computer science or economics in recent years. Some choose to major in those subjects and keep art history as a minor, which she said is “a way to satisfy themselves and their parents.”

She said, though, that a degree in art history could be attractive even to employers in science, technology, mathematics and engineering fields.

“This mental training with images is something you need in the medical community and in the sciences, and as an economist, where you’re organizing images to be understood,” she said. “Employers want people who can think outside the box.”

Prof. Abby Cohn, the director of undergraduate studies for linguistics, said while the number of majors in her department has stayed fairly constant at about 15 students, they are increasingly adding computer science as a second major.

“That’s one of the areas right out of undergrad where there are a lot of opportunities available,” she said.

Cohn added that there is a concern among professors in the College of Arts and Sciences that more students are adding majors and minors that seem useful, rather thatn focusing on subjects they are truly passionate about.

“Often, students will have one major that is the thing they love,” she said. “The other one is something someone in their family thinks is a good, practical thing to do.”

  • Robert W

    “Thinking outside the box” is something that college students today, especially in the liberal arts, are most definitely taught not to do.