In the Broadway musical, “Avenue Q,” a character breaks into the following song:
“What do you do with a BA in English?/ What is my life going to be?/Four years of college and plenty of knowledge/ Have earned me this useless degree.” [“Avenue Q,” Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marks].
“Avenue Q” won multiple Tony Awards in 2004.
Now, two decades later, even more students are singing that questioning tune about degrees in English (or history, philosophy, or other humanities).
A recent article in the New Yorker magazine concludes that “During the past decade, the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third.”
Jane Clarke knows the feeling.
A history major at Northwestern (Class of 2024), Clarke says “I get that a lot. What are you going to do with a history degree?”
Clarke is not sure yet, but she’s confident her passion for the subject will pay off.
“My mom was a history major,” Clarke says.
“It’s always been my favorite subject in school.”
But while Clarke is history, through and through, the number of history degrees awarded by Northwestern has plummeted, from 71 Bachelor of Arts degrees in 2012-23 to just 32 in 2021-22.
It’s similar in English, from 60 BA degrees a decade ago, to just 24 in the last academic year.
Computer science degrees (Bachelor of Science) over the same period, however, have jumped from 31 to 102.
It appears that students are weighing the prospects of a BA versus a BS when it comes to getting a J-O-B in a changing economy. High tech, yes. High school teaching, no.
But the Dean of NU’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences says the picture for humanities and some social sciences (history is considered a social science at NU, a humanities course in some other universities) is not nearly as grim as it may seem.
Adrian Randolph says that interest in the humanities is still strong at Northwestern, even if fewer degrees are being awarded.
“We’ve increased the number of English minors,” he notes, adding “sometimes the major is not necessarily what to look at.”
For example, history major Clarke says some of her friends in pre-med are also taking history as a minor.
Neel Shah (NU Class of 2023) is a history minor.
Shah is majoring in economics (NU’s largest undergraduate major) and computer science, but says, “I always take a history class to keep me sane.” More deep thinking, less numbers crunching.
Shah says his parents, who are from India, are “pretty conventional,” asking him “why are you minoring in history. How can it help you get a job?”
Shah’s response: “History makes me a better reader, writer and synthesizer of information.”
And in the age of artificial intelligence, Shah notes, “history teaches you which sources are valid.”
As somone from an immigrant family, Shah says history for him, especially the history of American immigration, is intensely personal.
History, he says, “is good for the heart.”
Elizabeth Vazquez says “history is just story-telling.”
A history major in the Class of 2024, Vazquez is actually double majoring in history and anthropology.
Vazquez tells the story of a computer science major who said of studying history, “Oh, that’s gotta be really easy.”
Vazquez says one of her history-major friends “got so upset she stormed upstairs to find him.”
As with her fellow history majors, Vazquez says “there’s so much you can do with a history degree.” She’s thinking of working in a museum, after getting another degree …. an MA … in history.
While humanities majors may not make the big bucks right after graduation, Dean Randolph says there are studies showing those majors do catch up and may even do better financial about a decade out.
Some smaller colleges are actually eliminating departments where the number of students and majors are decreasing.
But Randolph says that’s not the philosophy at NU.
“We don’t just hire faculty to teach,” he says, “but also to produce new ideas and scholarship.”
“If we only look to enrollment,” and drop courses or even departments, “what would we be losing as a culture” if we don’t produce research and thoughts capable of impacting society.
As Jane Clarke puts it, “what can you do with a history degree? Nothing, and everything.”
Or, as the character from “Avenue Q” concludes, in the song questioning the value of being an English major: “But somehow I can’t shake/The feeling I might make/A difference/To the whole human race.”
(Note: Reporter Jeff Hirsh has both a BA and an MA in history.)