Reimagining the social science degree

In recent years, majoring in the social sciences has become like the talkative and neurotic boyfriend or girlfriend you’re ashamed to introduce to your parents.

I’m sure every person who decides to major in English, history, philosophy or psychology has experienced that stare from both friends and family that roughly translates to, “What are you going to do with a degree in that?”

Call it a cultural shift or simply people over-fetishizing STEM degrees, but it’s clear that the social sciences do not receive their due credit. A few years back the current Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, proposed freezing tuition rates for those majoring in “strategic” fields while letting tuition increase for those majoring in the social sciences. He even mocked anthropology majors and said he would want to invest money in degrees that will create jobs.

But that’s not all.

Last year congressional Republicans proposed a bill that would cut spending for research in the social sciences by more than 40 percent, which would shift $160 million from the social sciences to other fields focused on biology and engineering.

While my heart breaks at these attacks on the humanities, I can’t help but feel they get to a root of a larger problem. People no longer see the social sciences as a viable path to a successful career and the humanities are treated as a hobby or an interest which doesn’t yield real employment opportunities.

This sentiment is not only shared by elected officials and parents disgruntled at the idea of sending a kid to college to study art, but students as well. According to the American Historical Association, in 2011, while degrees in other fields continued to rise, the number of people earning degrees in history dropped to the lowest in has been in 10 years. At the University of Maryland, the amount of English majors dropped nearly 40 percent over the course of three years.

Data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System shows that between 1996 and 2009 the amount of English majors increased but steadily began dropping off after 2009. At George Mason University the English major has dropped nearly 50 percent in the past 20 years.

Between 2004 and 2011, the social sciences as a whole grew only 0.2 percent, making up 10.2 percent of undergraduate degrees awarded in comparison to the life science fields which grew from 10.6 percent to 14.6 percent in the same time frame.

It seems that in this current economic climate students are squeamish about majoring in a field that they might be genuinely interested in, fearing that it won’t play out well following graduation. If this is the case, what can the social sciences do in order to make their fields more attractive to prospective students?

Let’s face it: While I’m sure everyone is thrilled at the abstract idea of “getting an education,” most people attend a university in order to secure a well-paying job following graduation. Social science professors should recognize this fact and gear their lesson plans in ways that encompass the subject while fostering transferable skills that you can advertise when searching for a job. And social science professors should not treat every single student as if they are preparing them for academia.

Only a minuscule amount of people who major in the social sciences will go on to have a successful future in academia, let alone find a job after finishing school.

While I myself love an academic approach to the social sciences, the modern university has to adjust to the fact that this is not the prevailing reality. I’ll be honest, the university campus is no longer a place where the best and the brightest go to expand their knowledge on multiple subjects while contributing to a field of their choice. While this may be true for some, the university campus is now saturated by the average and the mediocre hoping to get a leg up and have a career.

However, you don’t need to be intelligent to enjoy history, literature or philosophy. The challenge is being able to take these topics and turn them into exercises and lessons that will be useful in different career fields.

I had one history professor who did this in his 300 level history classes. Rather than having us write long research papers about various historical topics, he gave us a weekly two page paper assignment about a fairly complex historical prompt and told us to write a concise, well worded argument without any fluff.

“This is a skill,” he told us on the first day of class. “No one reads the 15 page memo.”

Being able to take an objectively interesting topic such as the Punic Wars or ancient Egyptian religion and turn it into a life skill, rather than an academic research paper that drains you and makes you hate the topic, should be the goal of the modern university.

Now I’m not saying research isn’t a good skill, but research for the sake of research is not a transferable skill unless you are an academic. If the professors took this direction, and saw their classes not merely as academic training but also vocational training, I believe you’d see a lot of people coming back to the social sciences.

People who are good at selling themselves will have no problem doing this, but for those who aren’t, the social sciences should be there to help them while allowing them to explore topics they are interested in.

For those who are not entirely sure what to do following graduation go talk to career services and get some advice. The university, while it may only see you as a pair of dollar signs most of them time, does offer help for those who are struggling to find their path.