February 2, 2012

Letter to the Editor: Hope for the Humanities

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To the Editor:

Re: “Number of Humanities Degrees Awarded Plummets,” News, Feb. 1

Wednesday’s article reports on a complex subject that deserves fuller exploration.  Without having the chance to see a broader picture, readers may greatly underestimate the vitality of humanities study at Cornell.

The “plummet” referred to in the article occurred between 2006 and 2011.  However, Cornell has the same number of humanities majors now as it did in 2002.  Looking back over 10 years, one sees that fluctuations up and down between 10 and 20 percent are common.  Even more compelling is to look at averages over decades: The University had 10 percent more humanities majors in the ’90s than in the ’80s, and another five percent more in the 2000s. Taking the broad view and disregarding the inevitable volatility of the majors’ tally, our number of humanities majors has enjoyed a long-term rise.  It is too early to predict the trend for this decade.

The short-term dip reported in the article did happen — but why?  There are many relevant factors to consider, in addition to student interest and apprehension about the economy.  For example, the number of humanities faculty declined by nearly eight percent between 2006 and 2011.  The effects of the economic downturn were in full force, and the college had not started faculty renewal. It is important to remember that, for reasons like this, the number of majors is more likely to dip and rise than to remain steady.

To fully understand what is going on with humanities study at Cornell, you have to look at the range of our teaching.  Humanities courses are popular with students across the university, not just the liberal arts majors.  Half of all A&S teaching is to non-A&S students who take our courses to fulfill requirements or for personal reasons.  Some of our departments have created minors, in part because of the strong interest of these students.  Many students are drawn to the intrinsic value of the humanities.  Some want to broaden their understanding of humanistic aspects of our culture.  Others realize humanities study can help them develop skills and perspectives, as well as factual knowledge, that are highly desirable in professions outside the humanities.

The article opened by observing that we are about to construct a humanities building at a time when we have seen a decline in the number of humanities majors. We have needed more space for humanities classrooms and faculty offices for 30 years.  The need is becoming increasingly critical, now that we are engaged, once again, in robust faculty hiring.  Thankfully, in four years’ time, we will have more space, impressively designed, that will be suited to the stature of Cornell’s humanities program.

Peter Lepage

Dean, College of Arts and Sciences