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Humanities courses can solve Princeton's civic service problem

A photo of the arch between Dickinson Hall and the University Chapel: a high stone double gothic arch with a blue sky behind.
Arch between Dickinson Hall and the University Chapel.
Zoe Montague / The Daily Princetonian

While researching theory on aesthetic appreciation and artistic analysis in preparation for a trip to Greece with the Western Humanities Sequence last fall, I read a few chapters from a 2015 dissertation in English on romantic hellenism. When I searched for the author’s email in order to thank him for his scholarship, I expected to find him on the faculty page of a University website. Instead, I found his LinkedIn, where it turned out he had followed up his Ph.D with a stint in consulting and was currently working as a research analyst. 

This discovery was saddening. It felt to me that someone who had written such a fascinating work on the ways in which humanity experiences its own temporality should be on some elevated career path, not in the muck of consulting. It was the same sadness which runs through the veins of many idealistic Princetonians today. We feel, righteously, that the life of a Princetonian should be heroic: uplifting the downtrodden and solving the most pressing injustices of our time. Yet few alumni seem to be living up to the task.


Current students love bandying about Princeton’s motto — “In the nation’s service and the service of humanity” — to pass judgment on alumni who seem to be pursuing careers which seem to be anything but. The fact that 38% of graduates, the most in any one field, from 2016 – 2022 are currently working in the business sector (an industry including Finance, Consulting, General Business, and Entrepreneurship) reinforces our sense of moral superiority over previous classes. After all, if we are the #1 University in the nation, should we not have the #1 impact for good? 

The solution to the crisis of apparent apathy and moral ambivalence lies not in forcing alumni into a career that has been certified as good for humanity, but in instructing Princetonians on how to identify such opportunities. Moreover, it is to teach in a way that leads to an internalization of why it is good to pursue a life that has a benefit to humanity as a whole. In other words: to study what it means to be human. The real crisis in serving the nation and humanity is Princeton's devaluation of the humanities studies as opposed to engineering and technical fields. 

Humanistic education begs students to seek truth in the world around them: to utilize a variety of forms of investigation — literary, philosophic, artistic, and more — to understand the human experience. Such a process can begin to help students understand how to be human, and how they can individually make choices that increase goodness and justice in their lives — so long as they can come up with a definition for these terms and identify that those are the ends to which they should strive. 

In this manner of education, students are imbued with a stronger sense of their role in a greater human community, which helps them to pursue a postgraduate path in the service of others. Yet in a world where education is increasingly seen as nothing more than a certification on the path to financial and professional stability, humanistic values are wont to fall by the wayside. College degrees are currently being reduced to nothing but a status symbol, demonstrating that a graduate possesses a certain level of technical skill. As a result of this process, students become much less likely to use that degree in any other way than a technical manner. 

This vision of education’s purpose is already affecting the type of education being offered. West Virginia University (WVU)’s recently released a plan to discontinue 32 majors from their flagship campus, including the Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics, as well as to downsize the faculty in several departments, such as English. Explaining his decision, the President cited the need to “provide modern ways of delivering content” that students “find meaningful and relevant.” Viewing education as nothing more than “content” reduces the student to simply a consumer of education, rather than an active thinker, investigator, and ultimately, participant in their own self-progress. 

This is a national trend: America has seen a massive decline in interest in the humanities over the course of this century. From 2012 to 2020, the annual total of humanities majors awarded fell 16%. As of 2020, less than 10% of all bachelor’s degrees conferred came from humanities departments. In Nathan Heller’s New Yorker article from last February entitled “the End of the English Major,” he suggests that the vast majority of Americans no longer understand the value of these fields. 


Heller argues that students in the past pursued education via the liberal arts to achieve a “cultivation of the mind,” citing Lionel Trilling, who described the basic belief in this sort of learning as the idea that “certain good things happen if we read literature.” Yet today, he provides myriad examples of students who cannot identify such a reward. A Harvard student told Heller that the subjectivity of grading within the humanities inherently lowers its value, as a student could take a humanities course and “easily walk away with an A or A-minus and not learn anything.” Another student noted that one feels as if they are “not really going anywhere” in their humanistic studies, since the “skills are very difficult to demonstrate.” 

When students do not take courses in the humanities, they miss out on studying works which ask how to determine what it means to be good, and why you should pursue the good. In a climate in which students don’t have the basic ability of interrogating these questions, how could a university expect its students to go forth and creatively serve their nation and humanity at large? Service cannot be reduced to post-graduation careers, but it can be predicted from the quality and type of an education itself. 

There is no single career from which you can automatically do good, and there are few careers which make such a task impossible. The fact is that one can do good from almost anywhere — whether that be in finance, business, engineering, government, or the nonprofit sector — if you have the capacity to lead your life with a commitment to others at its core. When a student receives a purely technical and content-based education that does not engage their critical thinking and learning skills, they are going to be hard-pressed to answer the difficult questions that lead to such a prioritization.

So why are students shying away from the humanities? In part because the University is encouraging them. Heller described the climate at Harvard as follows: “In a quantitative society for which optimization — getting the most output from your input — has become a self-evident good, universities prize actions that shift numbers, and pre-professionalism lends itself to traceable change.” 

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Princeton seems to be going in the same direction: For the past 7 years, President Christopher L. Eisgruber has been pushing the message that the future of Princeton lies within the growth of engineering. In the 2016 strategic framework, the Board of Trustees wrote that a “great liberal arts university requires a great engineering school,” and that “fields related to information science… will require special attention.”  Many construction projects around campus are visual evidence of this focus, as “a massive construction project will update buildings built a half-century ago,” and will move the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), in Eisgruber’s words, “from the periphery into the core of the University.”

This makes clear to students where Eisgruber thinks the future lies. While promoting engineering does not necessarily mean that the humanities should fall by the wayside, there is a special excitement that University leadership gives to SEAS which the humanities sorely lacks. The 2016 plan emphasizes that growth in engineering is partly in response to the rising student interest in the field: “Over the past decade, the number of students concentrating in computer science has tripled, and the enrollment in computer science courses has quadrupled.” 

This necessitates a decrease in interest for the humanities — if the University simply follows the path of students desire, what’s to stop an axing of humanities resources similar to that at WVU? We are left with nothing but a weak commitment to humanistic study, with Princeton acknowledging its “special responsibility to exercise visible leadership in the arts and humanities by nurturing such scholarship on its own campus and helping to raise its standing throughout the world,” without any mention of how to accomplish this hefty task.

A university plays a very specific and time-bound role in a student’s life. It educates us — for the most part — during a time when we are transitioning to independent adulthood, making decisions about who we are and what we want to be. Yet it is not meant to help us make that choice forever. Who we are when we leave college is not who we are going to be in 10 or 20 years. A university cannot force its students into a certain postgraduate outcome, nor should we assume that good can only be accomplished through a narrow set of opportunities. We must rather expect that it produces students who understand the importance of making decisions that positively affect the world in meaningful ways and know something about how to do so. The english-Ph.D-candidate-turned consultant whose work I encountered last year is probably serving those he consults or researches for far better due to his background in romantic hellenism and his understanding of the human condition.

The Princeton strategic framework says that “a Princeton education should shape the whole person,” enhancing “the quality and humanity of our nation and our world.” We must maintain our commitment to this mission, and to our mission statement, by focusing on and uplifting the humanities core which can educate us in how to accomplish these.

Abigail Rabieh is a junior in the history department from Cambridge, Mass, pursuing certificates in Humanistic Studies and French Language and Culture. She is the head Opinion editor at the ‘Prince’ and can be reached by email at or on Twitter at @AbigailRabieh.