Changing trends in how American undergrads choose their college major reflect broader social trends, argues Mark Shiffman, an associate professor of humanities at Villanova University. Since the early 1990s, the number of college students dedicated the humanities–philosophy, English literature, classics, history, etc.–has dropped significantly. The departments that have seen a corresponding uptick in interest are more practical: economics, Spanish, and Arabic studies.
Our collective quest for security–economic security as well as physical security–is motivated by a fear that has inherently skewed priorities, at least for a civilization that is ostensibly civilized enough to know better. The kind of growth that cultivates a soul, and in turn forms civilization, is found in contemplation and reflection. These pursuits do not follow the straight lines or tick the boxes that Shiffman’s students hope will deliver them from uncertainty and fear. Ironically, he says, it is their pursuit of this security which feeds their fear.
“Students want continual reassurance that they’re equipping themselves. They clothe themselves in an armor of achievement that they hope will protect them against uncertainties—of the job market, of course, but also deeper uncertainties about their status, their identities, their self-worth.”
In his Big Think interview, NYU president John Sexton gives advice about how to choose a college and recommends thinking twice about attending a major research institution:
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