Since the recession of 2008, it has become a cliché to see the national shift from humanities to STEM majors as an inevitability in a technologically driven world. Many observers expected this trend to accelerate as artificial intelligence services, like ChatGPT, threaten to upend the way students communicate their learning in writing-intensive disciplines like the humanities. This spring, however, several prominent universities reported major upticks in their humanities majors.
At Berkeley, majors in the arts and humanities have seen a 121% enrollment increase from 2021 to 2022. The dean of Berkeley’s Division of Arts and Humanities, Sara Guyer, notes that “It is not at all surprising that students are turning to the arts and humanities as a way to make sense of our current moment. The imaginative, ethical, creative and analytical contributions and historical observations of humanities research and artistic production provide a valuable way to understand the complexities brought on by contemporary challenges.”
Similarly, Arizona State University and the University of Washington have both reported significant growth in their humanities majors. ASU saw an 87% rise from 2018 to 2019, while UW experienced a 227% increase over the past 5 years. In an effort to increase enrollment, both universities have addressed the negative perceptions that people often hold about the humanities.
Might the development of artificial intelligence technologies fuel a return to the humanities? Writing for the New York Times, David Brooks suggests that humanities education can be a strength. “In the age of artificial intelligence,” he advises young readers, “major in being human.” Brooks urges us to consider the skills that machines cannot replicate and focus our energies on those: a distinct personal voice; presentation skills; a childlike talent for creativity; unusual worldviews; empathy; situational awareness. During college, Brooks notes, the humanities gave him a sense of humility and moral bearing:
“My own best teachers modeled a set of moral virtues — how to be rigorous with evidence, how to admit error, how to coach students as they make their own discoveries. I remember how I admired them and wanted to be like them. That’s a kind of knowledge you’ll never get from a bot.”
While A.I. may replace some human labor, it also reveals what machines cannot do and what “we have to offer” if we develop the skills that make us distinctly human.