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Data demonstrates fewer students are declaring humanities majors

in Around Campus/News by

As the world becomes increasingly dependent on technology and educational policymakers continue to push for STEM education in American schools, the balance and nature of humanities and natural science courses at Swarthmore are changing.

A Daily Gazette article published earlier this month reported that the sophomore plans for the class of 2017 included a noticeable drop in the number of anticipated humanities majors at the college, falling from the class of 2015’s 20 percent to 16 percent. The trend appears to continue with the class of 2018, with 11 percent having indicated interest in majoring in the humanities.

Provost Tom Stephenson confirmed in an email the general trend away from the humanities and towards the social and natural sciences, citing data from Swarthmore’s Institutional Research website.

Stephenson said that when the college experiences a shift in academic interests toward a particular division of the college — such as the shift that is currently occurring — the first response is to allocate temporary faculty in that area, since the college is reluctant to make more permanent commitments until they certain that the demand will hold up. As time passes, the college allocates tenure lines to overenrolled departments in response to stable student demand. However, Stephenson noted that the power to increase resources to a particular division of the college is not unlimited.

“There is a limit to what we can do, since our resources are not completely flexible — we have minimum critical mass considerations in other areas of the curriculum that need to be maintained to have a healthy broad based liberal arts experience for students,” Stephenson said.

Even though Swarthmore is able to adapt to the changing academic demands of students, Stephenson expressed concern over the trend towards the natural sciences. He believes that the national push for more students to major in the natural sciences is a short-sighted practice, and one that Swarthmore should work hard to defy.

“I don’t think that we should change our overall goals in response [to the trend], except to redouble our commitment to a broadly based education, and to increase our efforts to attract a student body that is interested in the full range of subjects that we offer here,” he said.

Professor of English and Coordinator of Environmental Studies Betsy Bolton agreed that the increase in the number of students majoring in the natural sciences is a concerning trend, both for the natural sciences and the humanities. Bolton explained that as fewer students choose to major in the humanities, departments like English Literature are left with no choice but to offer fewer courses, and the courses that remain contain fewer students. She noted that the increased interest in the natural sciences puts huge strains on departments like Biology to keep up with student demand and ensure that majors are able to take all the courses required to graduate.

Chair and Professor of Biology Amy Vollmer confirmed that her department has seen a steady increase in the number of tenured professors in recent decades. The department added its 12th tenure track faculty member in 2013, a conservation biologist who will arrive in fall 2015. The last new tenured position was granted in 1997, for an evolutionary biologist.  Vollmer also expressed a need for even more expansion in the department as student interest continues to increase.

“We need to expand even more, given the fact that all of our courses are lotteried nearly every year.  We have put in for 2 more positions, one new and one to replace a

retiring faculty member, and will hear from the Provost in May about the

decision,” she wrote in an e-mail. Vollmer also stressed that curricular decisions

in the Biology department are made by the faculty. They are not based on student interest, but rather on what fields of biology are expanding.

The Philosophy department is also being forced to adapt in response to the changing academic climate at Swarthmore. According to Professor and Chair of Philosophy Tamsin Lorraine, the department graduated from 13 to 20 majors a year from 2005 to 2010, while from 2011 to 2015 it graduated from 7 to 15 majors each year.

“Of course, we are, like other humanities, aware of changing student interests that relate to changes in the larger culture,” she wrote in an email. She mentioned several different ways in which the department is adapting to changing student interests, such as offering new courses, including Environmental Ethics, The History of Analytic Philosophy, and Philosophy of Literature and Film, and updating the syllabi of current courses like Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics in order to respond to the emergence of new topics and problems.

On the ground, students are also noticing a shift in the way in which different academic interests at Swarthmore are perceived. Bill Fedullo ’16, an Honors Philosophy major and English Literature minor, believes that Swarthmore and other liberal arts schools are always dealing with the drive to make the humanities more “practical.” He admitted that it may be difficult to justify studying the humanities in contemporary society, but recognizes real value in the timeless questions that the humanities discuss.

“The humanities and the sciences are different things. Yes, the humanities are less amenable to objective testing than the sciences. Imagine how tragic it would be if that weren’t the case,” he wrote in an email. “If philosophy could just be reduced to a set of facts that can be learned and memorized, it wouldn’t really be worth anyone’s time.”

It remains to be seen whether the current trends toward the natural sciences are going to continue past the Class of 2018. Vice President and Dean of Admissions Jim Bock said it was too early to tell what the prospective majors of the Class of 2019 will be, since they have yet to officially make their college decisions.

3 Comments

  1. “If philosophy could just be reduced to a set of facts that can be learned and memorized, it wouldn’t really be worth anyone’s time.”

    Are you implying that studying the natural sciences is just learning and memorizing sets of facts? If so, I really don’t know what to say to you…

  2. @ wut: I didn’t mean to imply that the natural sciences or mathematics is just learning and memorizing sets of facts, but I can see why you could draw that inference. Obviously the natural sciences teach important things about methodology and such; I didn’t mean to deny that at all. That line quoted from the email is from a paragraph in which I was discussing the perceived relative difficulty of the humanities and the sciences (and mathematics). My point is just that science and math majors actually probably have a harder time in terms of grading just because there are more ways to be objectively wrong. If I’m asked to solve a calculus problem, there is a correct answer and then there are an infinite number of wrong answers. If I’m asked to speak about a problem in philosophy, there are multiple ways I could reasonably address that problem. Which isn’t to say that there is no objectively true solution to that problem, just that if there is, we don’t have a consensus on what it is yet.

    I also didn’t meant my statement to apply to undergraduate study of science, not actual scientists in the field. There’s obviously a huge difference in learning what scientists have done and actually doing experimental science. I understand that many classes here do have an experimental component, and that many science students participate in experimental research. I did not mean to imply otherwise, but, again, I can understand how the wording of my statement could be taken that way.

  3. The Gazette article you cite does not refer to sophomore plans but to the interests expressed by *incoming students* before arriving at Swarthmore. This is particularly significant because it would appear to reflect a deliberate agenda on the part of those who determine admissions; it also undoubtedly reflects changes within the applicant pool, but that is hard to know. Here is the passage from the Gazette piece: “20% of the class of 2015 indicated an interest in majoring in a humanities subject as incoming first-years. That statistic has gotten lower and lower with each subsequent class: 18% of the class of 2016 and 16% of the class of 2017 showed an interest in humanities. Of the class of 2018, 11% indicated an interest in majoring in a humanities subject, compared to 34% and 27% for natural science and social science, respectively.”

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