Sunday, June 09, 2013

Harvard Humanities

There's been a mild hubbub toward the end of the week here, due to a report and some articles (Boston Globe, WSJ) that the number of students majoring at the humanities at Harvard is in decline.  (See also this post at Shots in the Dark.)

Happily, this appears to be much ado about nothing.  Ben Schmidt at Princeton has already run the nationwide number, and shown that the decline is really more about a bubble in the 1960's of humanities majors.  Which just goes to show, when looking at historical data, what starting point you choose is important.  (Yes, that goes in the "duh", "lies, damn lies, and statistics" category.)

At Harvard, specifically, there are a variety of potential reasons for this trend, including but not limited to the general national trend.  In computer science, we've been actively trying to attract and retain students;  the humanities just may be facing more competition.  There is some claim that Harvard's financial aid policy is having an effect;  to the extent that students are coming from less well-off backgrounds, they may be seeking an education that they feel more directly will lead to job prospects.

There has been, however, perhaps a hint (or more than a hint) in some of all of what's going around that somehow people focusing on things outside of the humanities is "anti-intellectual", with students caring more about immediate job prospects than, well, the "intellectual" humanities. 

Naturally, I resent this.  I find computer science has a very solid intellectual basis.  The nature of computation, what it means to compute efficiently, how computing is found throughout nature (more on this in my next post) -- there's a lot interesting intellectually there.  If one seeks more "moral" sorts of lessons, I think many can naturally be found throughout CS, with the right interpretation.  The challenge of tradeoffs, for instance, is an underlying concept of my own algorithms class, and certainly appeared (if less quantitatively) in the moral reasoning class I took as an undergraduate. 

On the other hand, I understand where this is coming from.  There is a sense that the humanities is under siege (particularly at state institutions);  there are politicians of the mindset that "if it's not job training, why are we providing it?"  I believe that one should study more than computer science to learn to be a more complete human being;  I am thrilled to be at an institution where history, English, religious studies, as well as Romance languages, economics, and government are studied.  When one feels under attack, one's reactions might seem a bit more extreme.   

I'm not one to say where the final balance will be, or should be.  I do believe an understanding of computation should be a fundamental part of a liberal arts education;  it is clearly one of the most powerful ideas of the last century.  And it's our goal to make it both so that every Harvard student feels welcome and able to take a computer science course, and so that many understand our excitement and choose to major in it.  For a few decades, Harvard has been a bit behind in the role computer science has played at the university, and I think now that's changed.  So to the extent that the humanities feel the competition is from us, well, I'm actually all for it.    

Thanks to Harry Lewis for various discussions on this theme.  

No comments: