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Isaiah Berg: Humanities’ Cost

What should we make of the relative numbers of economists, humanists, and scientists in Dartmouth’s entering classes? Consider that as early as 2003, entering freshmen reported their overwhelming interest in the Social Sciences and Sciences, a combined 62% to the Humanities’ 13%. The most compelling data point to me is that as of 2003, over 20% of the entering class was undecided about their academic interests. Perhaps as a consequence of the college admissions rat race, students already come to the College with some specialized academic muscles.

I am uncertain of Joe’s analysis that prospective Humanities scholars have been turned away from Dartmouth in great numbers. Which way does the causality run? Besides, how many students actually end up in the academic field they expect as an incoming freshman? Ultimately, the phenomenon of declining enrollment in the Humanities is a national one debated inside and outside of academia. There are complex factors at work: the STEM Death March, grade inflation, and of course, student culture. Most Dartmouth students I knew, whether consciously or unconsciously, would rather be solving the world’s problems than mulling over the deontology of a world’s problem.

I believe that there is a profound and often-ignored dimension to this debate: the cost of tuition. I remember being quite surprised by a study I did in my sophomore year in an Economic Statistics course, surveying hundreds of my peers for a research paper. After controlling for a host of factors, including GPA and first-generation college student status, I discovered that family income was profoundly and significantly correlated with student’s academic major. The natural sciences and to a lesser extent the social sciences were much more likely destinations for those at the bottom of the family income scale.

This is not surprising to anyone who is familiar with the educational values of many middle and lower-class Americans. Higher education is often perceived as a “selfish” endeavor by students, one that is often a source of guilt for leaving family and community in its pursuit. The practicality of that education is fundamental; namely, how it will lead to marketable skills and a job and a good income that would make their family proud and justify the investment.

For students from wealthier families, prestige is perhaps a more fundamental value in higher education; they also have a greater deal of freedom to pursue their intellectual and personal interests. The ex-Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Ed Haldeman, at a Dartmouth event hosted by my fraternity, once remarked to me how proud he was of his children who have overwhelmingly eschewed the power of finance and business to instead pursue education and nonprofit work. This is a choice more accessible to wealthier students.

As the cost of the College climbs ever higher, at what point will middle class students no longer be able to follow their passions in the Humanities without reservation? Many students deeply value the intellectual development and exploration and maturity of a Dartmouth education; but at some point, money talks, and they may feel corralled into an academic major that promises more skills, direct job prospects, and the financial security necessary to justify the sticker price.

At the heart of the Humanities lies the contention that some things are worth studying for their own sake, intrinsic as they are to the human condition. Understanding truth, beauty, or justice doesn’t have to make you money to be important. The Humanities point us towards the treasures of human civilization and culture. The question is, how much longer can we afford them?


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