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The Humanities are Thriving at Carnegie Mellon

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Student interest in the humanities has been up and down over the last 50 years. After the financial crisis of 2008, student (and parent) anxiety over employability resulted in sharp drops nationwide in the number of humanities majors and the number of students enrolling in humanities courses.

At the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, student interest in primary majors that focus on knowledge and skills leading to a first job — for example, statistics and data science or information systems — has exploded, but student interest in additional majors and minors in the humanities has bucked the national trend and held steady.

We are excited by the energy in the humanities at Carnegie Mellon, and here are several other indicators that they are thriving:

  • For the first-year class entering in fall 2019, the number of admitted students who expressed interest in one of our four humanities departments went up nearly 33 percent over the previous year.
  • Of the four departments in the Dietrich College with the highest number of student enrollments in the 2017-2018 academic year, three were humanities departments.
  • Although only a tiny handful of the more than 90 distinct majors at Carnegie Mellon require a language, almost 48 percent of Carnegie Mellon's Class of 2018 took a course in Modern Languages. Nationally, there are only 7.5 modern language course enrollments per 100 students, according to the Modern Language Association’s most recent report.

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines at Carnegie Mellon are increasingly recognizing the value of adding or integrating the humanities into their research and education, and this is what we want. The demand for incorporating ethics, rhetoric, history or epistemology into topics like artificial intelligence, technological disruption or machine learning has increased dramatically. We also welcome what STEM has to offer us in advancing our own scholarship in the humanities.

What we are doing with the humanities is what Carnegie Mellon does with all of its disciplines: encourage them to combine freely with each other and all other disciplines, especially when doing so leads to better ways to investigate questions that matter. This is our secret sauce.

In fact, we designed our required first-year Grand Challenge Seminars to encourage Dietrich College students to recognize that multiple perspectives are essential to addressing complicated problems. The seminars are co-taught by faculty from different disciplines across the university and focus on issues like climate change, racism, inequality, gender-based violence and food insecurity.

When disciplines live inside of silos, they go stale. At the Dietrich College, we are working to make the humanities invaluable to scholars, students and employers. In my view, the best route to this end is to join forces with other disciplines whenever and wherever we can.

Our Philosophy Department has made itself so desirable to researchers in biomedicine, computer science, psychology and other disciplines that this academic year they will receive over $2 million in grant funding from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and U.S. Air Force. This is singular among American universities, but because of it, the department can also employ philosophers who do philosophy for its own sake.

We also celebrate how the humanities enhance our lives and our communities in a variety of ways. Our Humanities Center recently hosted the 2019 Pittsburgh Humanities Festival, “Smart Talk About Stuff that Matters,” in partnership with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and we are in the midst of our annual International Film Festival, “FACES OF WO/MEN.”

The leadership of our college and the university passionately believe that reflecting on the human condition is crucial to any education of value and that to do so effectively requires humanistic inquiry.   To learn more about the humanities at Carnegie Mellon, visit https://www.cmu.edu/dietrich/ or stop by our home in Baker Hall.