Canadian universities often complain that the problems of the United States are unfairly tagged onto our institutions even though this country does not share many of the issues – student debt, for example – across the border. Here is another interesting difference. If a new number-crunching exercise is correct, female students in Canada follow a more "traditional" gender route in their education.
Ben Schmidt, a history grad student at Princeton, found that in the U.S., more women than men have switched their area of study away from the humanities to majors like business, engineering or the social sciences. Except for a generational spike in the 1960s when more men chose to major in fields like fine arts, the number of male students to be found in English or French class has remained fairly steady. The number of women in humanities has dropped from about 15 per cent in the 1950s to 7 per cent, now matching the long-term averages for men choosing to pursue humanities. It is women, Schmidt argues, who are responsible for the overall decline in interest and enrollment in fields like philosophy.
But when we have some with fun with Statistics Canada data, no similar pattern emerges here. Admittedly, our statistics tables only allow a rather short-term view of the situation. Nevertheless, in 1993, 15 per cent of women were graduating with bachelor's degrees in humanities versus 11 per cent of men. By 2008, 12 per cent of women and 10 per cent of men were still happily reading Dante and Nietzsche (or maybe not so happily). In that same period, 2 per cent more men chose architecture or engineering and 2 per cent more women moved into physical sciences. Overwhelming these small shifts was the 12 per cent increase in women earning B.As. Men recorded no change in postsecondary degrees.
Could the decline of the humanities in the U.S. be seen as a good news story about how the opening up of new disciplines has led to much broader choices for women not just in school, but in life? Perhaps. But the earnings of younger women still lag behind men's, so the payoff to moving disciplines is slow. And if you are a professor in the humanities or appreciate that a course in philosophy tells us more than engineering can about human nature, the news is definitely not good.
In Canada, we still love literature and languages. The area of study that has seen the most decline? It's not the humanities. It's math, computer and information technology. Not exactly a shrinking field in terms of job opps.
Architecture or English major, we can all take comfort in one final study. All university graduates feel they are over qualified: They experience more boredom at work than their lesser educated peers. At least the humanities grads can ponder Kant's categorical imperatives while they're daydreaming of jobs better suited to their inquiring minds.
Simona Chiose is The Globe's Education Editor, follow Simona on Twitter at @srchiose.