Reconfiguring humanities degrees to stress their relevance to business could arrest a decline in student numbers, an international conference has heard.
Expertise in humanities-related subjects is increasingly vital in today’s high-tech economy, but not enough courses connect the skills and content learned by students to a business context, explained Tyler Cowen, Holbert C. Harris chair of economics at George Mason University.
Speaking in Singapore on 14 October at the Higher Education Futures conference, organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and Singapore’s Ministry of Education, Professor Cowen said that the rise of technology will, counterintuitively, require more students to be trained in humanities subjects.
“More technology in the world does not mean everyone should be a STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] major,” said Professor Cowen, a New York Times columnist and co-author of the economics blog Marginal Revolution.
Instead, more humanities graduates are needed to “synthesise, integrate and humanise” new technology to ensure that products and services are successful, he said.
“Why did Facebook do better than MySpace?” Professor Cowen asked.
“It may have had slightly better technology, but it was more because its [co-founder] Mark Zuckerberg, who majored in psychology, understood the importance of the feed of information, rather than just having a profile,” he said.
But the study of humanities is shrinking in many places as students opt for STEM and business-facing subjects, Professor Cowen said. “For the humanities to survive they will need to become more practical and orientated to business needs.”
Speaking to Times Higher Education after his speech, Professor Cowen claimed that antipathy to business runs deep within many humanities departments.
“Business is pushed out of the curriculum – business schools are looked down on as places for dunces,” he said.
“But if you look back to the Italian Renaissance, the study of humanities and business were seen as one – running a business was one of the arts of life,” he added.
Humanities curricula should be altered to ensure that students see how their studies give them “a dynamic edge” in business, rather than viewing their studies as separate to the job market, he said.
“You need to make courses less subject-specific and find areas where you have synthesis with the market.”
However, the “catastrophe” of collapsing students numbers is largely ignored by humanities scholars, who instead “blame critics” for failing to appreciate the discipline’s virtues, he said.
“This isn’t affecting the top universities, but if you study humanities at mid-level colleges you could end up working in Starbucks or driving [for] Uber,” he said.
Delivery of degrees in all subjects should also change radically, with a fifth of classes placed online to make space for more tutoring in small groups, Professor Cowen added.
“I did a pretty good degree – economics at Harvard – but I learned nothing in half my classes,” he said, adding that teaching quality should be measured more rigorously to weed out bad classes.
“Giving people negative evaluations is very difficult, but we need to do more to give value to students.”