College students are gravitating toward fields that pay the most or offer the most job security, especially in this uncertain economy.

On 21st century American campuses, is there room for Shakespeare, Sartre, and Sondheim? A declining number of students think so — a trend that worries leaders at many top universities, where engineers often outnumber humanists.

Seeking to reignite interest in the liberal arts, this week Stanford University is welcoming the Class of 2015 with a rich opening volley of literature, film, and philosophy designed to elevate freshmen dreams beyond that cool job at Google.

The 1,718 incoming students — nearly half of whom arrive intending to major in the sciences or engineering — will hear acclaimed author and physician Abraham Verghese praise the meaning, and opportunities, of a liberal arts education. They’ll debate summer reading assignments and get a flier promoting an “Ethics and War” program, led by nuclear disarmament expert Scott Sagan.

“We’re trying to break the idea that college is just something to get through on your way to a career,” said philosophy professor Debra Satz, associate dean for Humanities and Arts. “It is a gift.”

In the humanities’ heyday of the mid-60s, more than one in three Stanford students majored in languages, literature, the arts, history, cultural studies, philosophy, and religion.

By 1995, only about 1 in 10 did — a figure that hasn’t budged much in a decade. Meanwhile, interest in engineering, math, and computer science has climbed.

This nationwide trend is echoed in five decades of data from UC Berkeley, UC Los Angeles, and even from Ivy League schools like Harvard, Princeton, Brown, and Yale. (San Jose State and Santa Clara University don’t have long-term data, but their humanities enrollment has stayed stable over the past decade.)


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