The “death of the humanities” is not just an American phenomenon. Noah Smith has a piece referencing this article in Time, which reports that the Japanese Education Ministry has proposed major cuts to humanities and social science departments across the country:
More than two dozen Japanese universities have announced that they will reduce or altogether eliminate their academic programs in the humanities and social sciences, following a dictum from Tokyo to focus on disciplines that “better meet society’s needs.”
The reductions are not just in departments typically associated with low earnings potential, however:
Law and economics fall within the purview of the condemned disciplines. Seventeen universities will no longer recruit students to study them; the rest will eliminate elective courses within them. The Universities of Tokyo and Kyoto — Japan’s only two universities to clear the top hundred in world university rankings — said they would not heed the government’s call.
These education proposals are seen as an offshoot of Abenomics, and are intended to help Japan compete better in the global economy. Though the circumstances are different in the two countries, the reasoning behind the government order may look awfully familiar to those following the higher education story here at home. Many in both countries apparently assume that the STEM degrees are essential to the economy of the future while humanities degrees are more disposable.
However, the ability to think broadly, traditionally a hallmark of humanities and social science majors, is an important asset for journalists, investors, policymakers, and many other types of employees. The information economy needs workers who can creatively sort and prioritize ideas. Furthermore, as Barry Strauss notes in his excellent TAI review of Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education, the argument for studying the humanities is not just about employability, but also that “it will make our souls more beautiful” (read the whole thing).
The focus on STEM degrees, of course, is a response to a very real problem: Governments around the world need better ways to build twenty-first century workforces. Tomorrow’s workers need to be competitive, and to learn the skills that the market demands. But neither in the U.S. or in Japan should we underestimate the importance of the humanities.