If I were applying to college again, I wouldn’t list history as my prospective major as I did four years ago. I hope this doesn’t sound paranoid, but I think listing that today could actually hurt my application. And that’s a problem.
Melodrama aside, Mendez’s article was fascinating, shocking and a little scary. It discussed CS50, Harvard’s most popular class, with a mind-boggling 818 undergraduates. The lecture is more like a magic show than a traditional recitation, featuring swirling lights, techno music and the professor tearing a phone book in half. “This. Is. CS50,” the professor — David Malan, a youngish guy clad in jeans and a black sweater — chanted at the beginning of CS50, sounding a little like Steve Jobs, or maybe the leader of a cult.
“If there were ever a cult, it’s CS50,” one student told the Crimson.
CS50 is not a cult. But it’s part of a trend. At Harvard, this trend is virtually unstoppable. At Yale, it’s getting there.
This trend is more students majoring in STEM fields — at the expense of other fields. For years now, Harvard, Yale and nearly every other university across the country have been actively attempting to increase their STEM students. At Yale, this push can be seen through YES Weekend, a squadron of science “ambassadors” and, more broadly, the decisions and rhetoric of the Admissions Office. In 2006, the Yale Admissions Office began targeting the best and brightest math and science students across the country; since then, the number of applicants interested in STEM has skyrocketed 50 percent.
Yale’s STEM focus has been so successful, in fact, that it is having some unintended consequences. In the decade preceding 2011, the number of students taking English classes fell by more than 20 percent; the number of English majors dropped by a similar amount. During the same time period, the number of history majors fell by approximately 40 percent, while the number of kids taking history classes plummeted by almost 50 percent. By trying so hard to get the best STEM kids, Yale has allowed its humanities departments to suffer. A push for STEM has translated into a pull away from the humanities.
This is even truer at Harvard. In the “last decade alone,” David Brooks wrote in The New York Times, “the number of incoming students at Harvard who express interest in becoming humanities majors has dropped by a third.”
While some at Yale have been alarmed by the decline in humanities enrollment, at Harvard this has been celebrated. “[We’re] not especially sad to see the English majors go,” ran an editorial in the Harvard Crimson last year entitled, “Let Them Eat Code.” To the Crimson’s editorial board, the decline of the humanities represents “the foresight and responsibility of the American youth.”
And it’s not as if all this “foresight and responsibility” is actually creating more scientists. To me, it seems likely that the increase in STEM students, especially at Harvard and Yale, has largely meant a greater number of STEM kids going into finance and consulting. The number of Yale STEM students going on to obtain STEM Ph.D.s is at almost an all-time low, an excellent feature in the News pointed out last year. As a Chronicle of Higher Ed article put it, “our educational system churns out so many qualified people in STEM majors that about half of them have left the field within 10 years, according to a Georgetown University study.”
“Many don’t wait that long,” the article continued. “Professors even at august research institutions report seeing many of their brightest minds in the hard sciences flee to Wall Street after being wooed by recruiters from financial companies.” Two years ago, J.P. Morgan Chase announced it was going to double the number of interns it hired that were majoring in engineering. It did. And J.P. Morgan was the third largest employer of the Yale class of 2013.
So, finally, this brings us back to CS50. This class sounds bizarre and exciting. But it also exemplifies Harvard’s focus, its new “lifestyle.” It exemplifies the “let them eat code” mentality. Would Harvard ever pump this sort of pageantry into a humanities class? Never. And it wouldn’t have to, because it has so effectively transformed itself into a school that is hostile to the humanities.
Yale is on that path. I’m all for us beefing up our STEM recruitment, but only if that means more students actually enter STEM fields. I’m all for expanding our STEM enrollment, just not at the expense of humanities departments.
Scott Stern is a senior in Branford College. His columns run on Mondays. Contact him at scott. firstname.lastname@example.org.