... Here is how the numbers have changed from 1970/71 to 2003/04 (the last academic year with available figures):
English: from 7.6 percent of the majors to 3.9 percent
Foreign languages and literatures: from 2.5 percent to 1.3 percent
Philosophy and religious studies: from 0.9 percent to 0.7 percent
History: from 18.5 percent to 10.7 percent
Business: from 13.7 percent to 21.9 percent
In one generation, then, the numbers of those majoring in the humanities dropped from a total of 30 percent to a total of less than 16 percent; during that same generation, business majors climbed from 14 percent to 22 percent. Despite last year’s debacle on Wall Street, the humanities have not benefited; students are still wagering that business jobs will be there when the economy recovers.
What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.
... Alexander W. Astin’s research tells us that in the mid-1960s, more than 80 percent of entering college freshmen reported that nothing was more important than “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” Astin, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, reports that “being very well off financially” was only an afterthought, one that fewer than 45 percent of those freshmen thought to be an essential goal. As the years went on, however, and as tuition shot up, the two traded places; by 1977, financial goals had surged past philosophical ones, and by the year 2001 more than 70 percent of undergraduate students had their eyes trained on financial realities, while only 40 percent were still wrestling with meaningful philosophies.
Regarding the last paragraph, while there has undoubtedly been a general cultural shift, it is also true that a much larger fraction of the population attends college now, with resulting decline of average cognitive ability. Perhaps the elite of the 1960s had the luxury and cognitive ability to concentrate on their philosophy of life, as opposed to earning a living; students today do not.
For more see here:
Education and Verbal Ability over Time: Evidence from Three Multi-Time Sources
Nie, Golde and Butler
Abstract: During the 20th century, there was an unprecedented expansion in the level of educational attainment in America. Using three separate measures, this paper investigates whether there was a concurrent increase in verbal ability and skills. Changes in verbal ability in the general population as well as changes in the verbal ability of graduates of different levels of education are investigated. An additional investigation of how changes in the differences between males' and females' educational attainment are associated with changes in differences between their respective verbal abilities follows. The main finding is that there is little evidence that the large increase in educational attainment has resulted in an increase in any of the measures of verbal abilities and skills.