The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

Join our newsletter

Get Pitt and Oakland news in your inbox, three times a week.

President Joe Biden speaks on Friday at Carnegie Mellon University’s Mill 19 to tout his administration’s investment in infrastructure.
President Biden set to visit Pittsburgh this afternoon
By Brian Sherry, Contributing Editor • April 17, 2024
SGB hosts last meeting of the school year 
By Emma Hannan, Staff Writer  • April 17, 2024
Satire | A better use for editorial space
By Anna Ehlers, Contributing Editor • April 17, 2024

Join our newsletter

Get Pitt and Oakland news in your inbox, three times a week.

President Joe Biden speaks on Friday at Carnegie Mellon University’s Mill 19 to tout his administration’s investment in infrastructure.
President Biden set to visit Pittsburgh this afternoon
By Brian Sherry, Contributing Editor • April 17, 2024
SGB hosts last meeting of the school year 
By Emma Hannan, Staff Writer  • April 17, 2024
Satire | A better use for editorial space
By Anna Ehlers, Contributing Editor • April 17, 2024

Opinion | How elite universities whitewash the humanities and arts

A+gate+opens+to+the+Harvard+University+campus+Dec.+13%2C+2018%2C+in+Cambridge%2C+Mass.+%0A%0A
AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File
A gate opens to the Harvard University campus Dec. 13, 2018, in Cambridge, Mass.

Affirmative action has been on the decline for years, but the announcement of its ultimate demise was still a slap in the face to students and families from traditionally underrepresented racial groups. While current students won’t feel the repercussions of the Supreme Court ruling, future generations will be left with the aftermath. The news was even more unsettling as numerous legacy admission practices remained intact at many elite universities, proving that nepotism is not only permitted within the Ivies but codified. As the Ivies and Ivy-adjacent universities become more exclusive, they ensure that only the privileged are able to enter the humanities and thus partake in shaping our current cultural background.  

We first have to understand that while many of the Ivies like to claim they host a diverse array of students, they’ve maintained a steady admission of the already-elite. For the class of 2022, 14.6% were legacy students, meaning that about one in every 10 students on campus had parents who also graduated from the university. Additionally, 46% of the class of 2022 were white while just under 11% were Black or African American and 6.5% were Hispanic or Latino. Of that same first-year class, about one-third of the white first-years reported their family’s income above $250,000. Harvard isn’t alone in these statistics — Yale, Cornell, Dartmouth, the other Ivies and “Ivy Plus” colleges function in the same manner. 

While the Ivies continue to become more and more exclusive, another phenomenon is taking place at universities nationwide — the decline of the humanities. Over the past decade, the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third. While researchers and scholars have previously pointed to this as reflecting the nature of the American economy (up during the good times, down during the bad), enrollment numbers of the past decade have defied this. Even when the economy is booming, humanities enrollments have continued to plummet. 

At the same time, the flow of students enrolling as STEM or business majors is skyrocketing. Between 2010 and 2018, the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded grew by 62%. But this is expected in an age where tuition costs soar, student loan debt is climbing and job security isn’t guaranteed, especially for low-income or immigrant families. 

Julia Lee, a writer for the Atlantic, explains the pressure to go into STEM fields as a first-generation college student of Korean immigrants. “Before STEM was STEM, they wanted me to go into engineering or medicine or accounting because they didn’t want me to face the same precarious financial existence they faced,” writes Lee. This outlook holds true for many low-income families.

This is a popular phenomenon for students of color, even at elite universities. In a New Yorker article, a Harvard graduate explained the limitations of coming from a first generation home. “My parents, who were low-income and immigrants, instilled in me the very great importance of finding a concentration that would get me a job — ‘You don’t go to Harvard for basket weaving’ was one of the things they would say,” she said.  

As elite universities become more and more discriminatory, the low-income students who do manage to make it can’t risk the economic instability that comes with entering the humanities. 

This leaves the Ivy League networking opportunities that do exist within the humanities to the few students that remain. In a recent study, researchers say that attending an elite institution “has even larger impacts on other nonmonetary measures of upper-tail success, such as attending an elite graduate school or working at a prestigious firm.” Of course, those who stay in the humanities are predominantly white. In 2015, the most recent year of collected data, just 22% of humanities bachelors degrees were awarded to non-white, low-income students. This leaves the humanities and the arts to the wealthy, privileged students who are already buoyed by generational wealth.

“Who gets to be in the kinds of occupations you associate with more creative, enjoyable and fulfilling work? We found that, among people with similar levels of education, people in those jobs disproportionately come from richer families,” said Danial Lashkari, a Boston College economist.

This economic pattern promotes the same crisis of representation that erases people of color from cultural products like literature, film and journalism. Go to the masthead of any large magazine publication and you’ll notice that a majority of the writers are from an Ivy and predominantly white. The same goes for the producers and writers of your favorite sitcom, comedy special or the newest blockbuster movie.

This phenomenon is especially common in academia. Those who went to undergrad at an elite university are more likely to enter into an elite graduate school. Those who attend elite graduate schools make up the majority of the high-income and leadership positions within universities. In a 2015 study, it was found that 25% of institutions produced 71%-86% of tenure-line professors. As fewer students of color enter the humanities due to economic and cultural reasons, fewer go into academia. These patterns ensure that those from marginalized backgrounds are never given the opportunity to offer their different perspectives in the humanities, keeping us learning and thinking about the humanities and arts the same way we have for decades.

We must be aware of how elite universities maintain the cycle of privilege to allow upper-income, white students to follow their passions in the first place, and who remains systemically discouraged from these fields — because this is what shapes our cultural landscape. If we want to change how the humanities and arts have become a breeding ground for white elitism, then we also must change how we view the humanities. Many students consider the humanities as a study of “the unenlightened past,” but when we consider that it is these spaces that are in command of our present culture and ultimately which cultures emerge in our future, then the humanities hold a much heavier weight.

 

This summer, I had the opportunity to be a Undergraduate Humanities Research Fellow, where I was given a stipend from the university to pursue my own passion project. The fellowship directors prioritized diversity within my cohort, culturally and disciplinarily, and because of this I have been exposed to a multitude of incredible projects and conversations that have forever changed my own way of thinking.

 

The University of Pittsburgh may not be an elite university, but it is a university that hosts a multitude of career and academic opportunities, and maybe more importantly, prioritizes diversity. It is also a launching pad for those pursuing higher education in the humanities with a surplus of professors, mentors and advisors who genuinely care about their students and are willing to help. For those who come from low-income, underprivileged households, the choice to go into the humanities is daunting, but the University of Pittsburgh can change that. Coming back to campus offers a great opportunity to explore new courses in the humanities, and while it can be difficult for some students to ignore external pressures that dissuade them from enrolling in them, just taking one may completely change how you view the world around you.

Ebonee Rice-Nguyen writes primarily about political, social and cultural issues. Write to her at [email protected].

About the Contributor
Ebonee Rice-Nguyen, Senior Staff Columnist
Ebonee Rice-Nguyen is a junior majoring in English Writing with a double minor in Political Science and Gender Studies. She like to write about social and political issues, specifically nationalism and racial inequality. Ebonee hopes to one day make a living writing, but we will see how that goes.