A recent New York Times article looked at the shrinking numbers of liberal arts students at American colleges. At Stanford, for example, 45 faculty members teach humanities for only 15% of the students. The reasons for this decline range from the Great Recession to the fact that students simply feel they'll make more money pursuing other careers. And so it creates a self-perpetuating cycle whereby colleges dial back liberal arts funding in response to a shrinking number of liberal arts students.
Here's another theory: At the end of the day, an English degree won't prepare students for an increasingly digital world. Rather than argue this point, some colleges are instead adopting new technologies and skill sets that will change what it means to be a liberal arts student in 2013. Columbia and Cornell, for example, are embracing e-journals. And then there's the case of Reed College.
The Portland, Oregon-based liberal arts school recently announced that it had received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation aimed at transforming undergraduate student research in the digital age. The grant — $800,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and $150,000 from the W.M. Keck Foundation — will support a nearly $1.2 million project over the next four years.
The overarching project will help students to access and search digital files, including data, images, and audiovisual media for writing and research purposes. By allocating this funding, both foundations are embracing two goals: one, to ensure students make the most of technology available to them as undergraduates; and two, to ensure that these learned skills prepare them for their careers upon graduation.
It's worth noting that the foundations aren't allocating this money for the purpose of buying the newest, hippest piece of technology for its own sake. Rather, the grant addresses the question: "How can universities ensure students make the most new technology such that it supports their academic and career-oriented pursuits?"
One last point: Other universities should pay particular attention because Reed is considered an "early adopter" when it comes to technology. For example, in the fall of 2010, science students read all course material on newly issued iPads. It may sound quaint now, but at the time it was considered innovative. And now Reed is staking its claim on a classic liberal arts education that also gives students the technical tools they need to succeed in a highly digitized and competitive workforce.
There may be hope for 18th-century British literature majors after all.