Undergraduate humanities classes saw their lowest enrollment in three decades last year, according to data released by the Office of Institutional Research.
During the 2006-’07 academic year there were about 16,500 registrations for humanities courses, compared to about 19,000 in 2000. The number of undergraduate course registrations in the social sciences dropped slightly, while those in the natural sciences and other departments increased, including environmental studies, area studies and courses taken at Yale’s professional schools. Humanities classes, which include English, history, literature, foreign languages and philosophy, still make up about 35 percent of Yale’s total course registrations, which is greater than any other category of classes.
Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said decreasing enrollment in humanities classes has been observed at universities throughout the country and reflects the growing popularity of other fields, especially the social sciences, rather than a lack of interest in the humanities.
“I interact with many humanities faculty, and I know there are an awful lot of very interesting and exciting developments in the humanities these days,” Salovey said. “I just think there are many family pressures and also a lot of vexing issues in contemporary society that motivate students to study economics and political science.”
Director of Undergraduate Studies in English Lawrence Manley said his department is smaller than it was a decade ago. He said he has noticed a decline in enrollment in English classes, as well as in the number of junior and senior English majors, which decreased from 176 to 149 over the past two years, according to the OIR.
Manley said he knows a number of factors — including financial circumstances — affect students’ academic choices, but that the English department will continue to try to appeal to undergraduates.
“We’re always trying to present an attractive learning environment for students,” Manley said.
Political science major Alexander Martone ’10 said he thinks students are looking away from the humanities because they find some of the social science majors more practical, especially for those students hoping to pursue careers in the fields of business, politics or nonprofit.
“People see humanities as a way to go for a more academic future and social sciences as the way to go for a more hands-on future,” he said.
Martone said he does not think this trend will detract from the liberal arts mission of Yale because students can develop skills like writing and critical thinking in social science classes as well as humanities classes. He also said the College’s distribution requirements, which mandate at least two humanities courses in addition to social and natural science courses, help maintain balance in every student’s academic experience.
History major Alexander Dominitz ’09 said the University’s recent efforts to bolster offerings in the natural sciences might be contributing to increasing enrollment these courses. Still, he said, he is confident that standards and enrollment within humanities departments will remain high.
“I think Yale historically has always been an institution dominated by humanities, and I think the humanities have brought Yale much of its well-earned respect and prestige,” Dominitz said. “It would be a real tragedy if Yale were to lose its strength in the humanities, which I don’t see happening, even with recent trends.”
Students registered for about 300 more natural science classes than social sciences classes last year, according to the OIR.