Why Are We Here, Anyway? The State of Academia Against a Strengthening Careerist Milieu

Art by Mariana Porras

As Fall 2023 courses were released, I sat in Hotung Café browsing SIS on my laptop, which rested precariously atop our beloved, wobbling tables flanked by Emeco Navy chairs (a military industrial project designed for use in naval ships and prison interrogation rooms). I selected my major, Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora, from the dropdown menu. While the search results buffered, I briefly scanned the surrounding landscape: the usual crowd, clad in Carhartt and thrifted boxy knits, Yerba Maté in hand, was momentarily replaced by a herd of sophomores and juniors in business casual, awaiting their coffee chats with representatives from the likes of consulting firm Bain & Co., which would be hosting its annual spring presentation that coming Thursday. This presentation, chiefly recruiting students interested in consulting, floated inconspicuously among the week’s pre-professional milieu, which included a Communications and Media Networking night, Pre-Health Interview preparation, “Wall Street Prep” (described in a Career Center email as “a M&A and LBO Modeling Boot Camp”), and the University’s “Law Day.” 

Back on-screen, the SIS results page was populated with just 14 course offerings in studies of RCDincluding an introductory lecture, two thesis writing blocks, and a capstone course. For students who are neither brand new to RCD nor nearing their graduation, this leaves only 11 course offerings. Both Asian American Studies and Latinx Studies do not have courses or full time professors who will be here in the fall. Including a for-credit internship and an independent study, American Studies offers four courses. Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies has 16 courses available (again, four of which are for thesis work, independent research, or an internship). Even English, one of the more established humanities departments, has just 39 courses which are catered to undergraduates, and an additional 13 graduate and doctoral courses. History, Sociology, and Anthropology lack course breadth too, with 40, 27, and 21 undergraduate offerings for Fall 2023 respectively. 

More careerist degree tracks, which feed into jobs ranging from finance to IT, sing a different tune. There are, of course, the liberal arts majors, such as economics, which are more pre-professional than academic and feed into the likes of software conglomerates, biotech companies, and consulting firms. Students majoring in economics ( a go-to major for those interested in a job at Bain, for example) at Tufts may enjoy their choice of 64 courses for the fall. Computer science majors may choose from 65, and biology majors from 61. Not all STEM tracks are this fortunate, though; more academia-oriented STEM majors trend towards having fewer course options than their pre-professional counterparts. Such is the case for math, which offers just 36 courses for undergraduates this fall, including introductory and core credit-bearing courses (which are catered largely to non-math majors). 

These statistics exist against a frightening landscape for pursuers of the humanities, academia at-large, and the generally corporate-averse. Tufts reports that for the 2022–2023 year, humanities majors do not make up any of the top 10 majors, which comprise an aggregate 64.8 percent of the undergraduate community. In 2022, considering first, second, and third majors, Tufts awarded just 31 English diplomas and 30 for history of 1,914 total awarded majors. Philosophy and Religion produced just 28 and four diplomas respectively. The picture for interdisciplinary humanities, including majors which interrogate the production of identity, is a much bleaker one: zero Africana studies diplomas, 16 for American studies, and four for WGSS. Even Anthropology produced just 17 diplomas. Meanwhile, Economics produced 147, Biology produced 138, and Computer Science produced 171 total majors across the School of Arts & Sciences and the School of Engineering. 

At Tufts, the 10-year trend is not optimistic: wholesale arts and humanities diplomas have decreased by 33 percent since 2011. Anthropology, international relations, and political science diplomas have decreased by 30 percent, 46 percent, and 33 percent, respectively. Simultaneously, graduating economics majors experienced an 116 percent increase, biology increased by 155 percent, and computer science increased by 634 percent. The university also expanded programming in entrepreneurship and business alongside the recent opening of the Joyce Cummings Center, our on-grounds, brightly lit Memphis

In his New Yorker essay “The End of the English Major,” Nathan Heller writes about what he describes as a “freefall” within the study of the humanities. Heller ping-pongs between the academic tableaus of Harvard College and Arizona State University. At both, he shares, students feel discouraged to concentrate in the humanities, citing concerns over losing college. Undergraduate tuition has skyrocketed and continues to approach a six-figure mark for annual payment, the middle class continues to dwindle, and at the elite universities, Tufts included, students are surrounded by peers in the highest income brackets. It is no surprise, then, that there exists a conscription apparatus—exploitative and chiefly targeting those who need to make money back immediately—at these universities which pushes students to pursue the tracks that make them immediately hirable. This is what students colloquially refer to as “selling out.” But selling out, as one would have it, is the best way to secure a return on investment (an investment, again, that is becoming increasingly out of reach). As one Harvard student shared in an interview with Heller, “My parents, who were low-income and immigrants, instilled in me the very great importance of finding a major that would get me a job—‘You don’t go to Harvard for basket weaving’ was one of the things they would say.” 

Perplexing, though, is that, per Heller, even the wealthy and privileged at elite schools are walking away from a path in the humanities. The simple argument is that for those who need it, the economic comforts which stem from lucrative careers (think military engineering contracts, corporate law, consulting, or a stint at Google) render the humanities undesirable (if STEM makes you rich, then the humanities will make/keep you poor). However, there seems to be a uniform distance that students of all socioeconomic backgrounds are taking from the humanities, and this becomes puzzling. The economic pressures of attending college, I believe, corrupt the American university in two crucial ways. The first is that universities much like Tufts, which were founded on and continue to regard themselves as beacons of scholarship and ideation, lose their penchant for enhancing the production and consumption of knowledge. The liberal arts university, once an idyll of knowledge exchange happening everywhere from the lecture hall to its leafy paths, no longer feels oriented toward scholarship, academia, learning

This brings us to the second problem, the American labor milieu. On campus, a familiar and omnipresent truism ostensibly rings, “you just can’t work without a degree,” and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the undergraduate diploma is no more than an entry ticket to one’s place in the white-collar workforce. Consequently, a process of extraction has emerged; as tuition fees increase and undergraduate education (and, in some cases, graduate education, too) is rendered a mechanism for career placement, students are incentivized to extract as much capital as possible out of their (increasingly expensive) college years. As students find it harder to rationalize non-lucrative careers, their natural and valid desire for post-collegiate stability takes the wheel. In response, the elite university, therefore, has abandoned its scholarly roots to become a white-collar trade school. 

A trigger-happy response to arguments like mine (that universities are deprioritizing the humanities and other academia-oriented disciplines) is to claim the root of the problem is not systemic, but a lack of interest in those fields among current students and high school applicants. An interrogation into the sources and external influences for these very interests suggests that this may not be as much of an organic cultural shift as it may seem. It does not help that the US government, once a boon to the humanities at a national level—pouring billions of dollars into education in the humanities (in all 50 states, K–12 schools, and the private and public domains alike) from the middle of the twentieth century to just before the 2008 economic crisis—has now turned its attention toward STEM (recall, if you can, the CODE.org posters in your middle school with the faces of Mark Zuckerburg and Barack Obama). This nationwide priority shift bleeds into the private institution, too. In 2016, Tisch College at Tufts received 15 million dollars and was rededicated to the study and promotion of civic life. Five years later, the university received 90 million dollars to open its Joyce Cummings Center, and with it, give more attention to computer science and entrepreneurship. These funds appear to be funneled into the careerist STEM, economics, and entrepreneurship departments—conversely, the older, grayer buildings such as Braker Hall and the once-set-for-demolition Lincoln Filene Hall are relegated to those lesser departments, like anthropology or RCD. These fiscal and material markers directly signal to students what is important to the university and to the state, and, subsequently, what will help one accrue wealth and achieve stability in the “real world”—who could say no to that?

I am brought back to thinking about the state of affairs for the Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora department and the SIS results page that started this whole inquiry. The dialogue and scholarship coming out of RCD and other interdisciplinary majors including Asian American studies, American studies, Africana studies, Latinx studies, and WGSS is becoming increasingly relevant in our American socio-cultural landscape. Affirmative action will inevitably be scrapped; critical studies of race are being threatened across the country; anti-queer and trans legislation continues to proliferate; and the reproductive autonomy of women is diminishing nationally. Simultaneously, crucial ethical concerns over the widespread application of generative AI tools including GPT and Dall-E have emerged. All of these issues, which occupy more and more space in the American discourse, require answers rooted in ethics, identity, and general study of the humanities. Liberal arts colleges and universities like Tufts were once dedicated to these scholarly pursuits, and were acutely aware of the societal gravitas and potential for problem-solving that these areas of study have.

Such was especially the case here. The story of Tufts’ founding goes like so: 

As local lore has it, when a relative asked Charles Tufts what he would do with his land, and more specifically with “that bleak hill over in Medford,” Tufts replied, “I will put a light on it.” In 1855… Rev. Hosea Ballou 2d… the college’s first president, remarked, “For if Tufts College is to be a source of illumination, as a beacon standing on a hill, where its light cannot be hidden, its influence will naturally work like all light; it will be diffusive.”

We are currently faced with a critical, albeit provocative, question: Why are we here? What is the fundamental, teleological purpose of our four-or-so years on the Hilltop? The status quo appears to suggest that the undergraduate experience is merely a stepping stone to the workforce, perhaps disinterested in producing new knowledge or pursuing scholarship, and most certainly abstaining from critical studies of the self and our global contexts. However, I believe that our purpose here is much greater than the jobs we may secure after graduation. By rededicating itself to scholarship, Tufts may once again become an idyll of knowledge exchange, the diffusive source of illumination it had at its origins sought to be; for we are here to learn, and how lucky are we to do that.