Humanities, Honors Programs in Decline

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Earlier this week, Swarthmore’s class of 2017 submitted their Sophomore Plans, as have hundreds of classes before them. However, against the backdrop of the significant hits to both the humanities division and the Honors program in recent years and the arrival of a new President, this group’s choices are especially important — the aggregate results of their decisions could determine the College’s trajectory for years to come.

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.

“I don’t believe that Swarthmore can be the place that it’s been if any one of the divisions falls down as low as 11%,” said Craig Williamson, Professor of English Literature and Honors Program Coordinator. “We pride ourselves here on dialogue and discussion and the diversity of ideas, and that includes the diversity of populations, but also the diversity of majors. If you fall down as low as 11, or 10, or 9, or 8% in the humanities division, then I think you’re in danger of becoming a school like Harvey Mudd, or one of the other schools that claims to be a liberal arts institution but is very largely math and science.”

Even within the humanities, faculty members hold a wide range of opinions on the issue — the magnitude of the problem, its causes, and possible solutions. Mark Wallace, Professor of Religion and Interpretation Theory Coordinator, believes that the problem stems back to the 2008 financial crisis, which led parents and students to pursue majors perceived as more “practical” or “market-savvy.”

“Swarthmore had generally been immune from those kinds of considerations — a student would study classics or biology or political science or art history because she had a passion for that, and she wanted to do that, and she thought that she could parlay that at graduation in the job market,” said Wallace. “But I think there’s less optimism about that now, and I think parents and students are thinking more practically about what would be productive in terms of a professional career and finding a job.”

However, some professors disagree, citing studies that suggest the drop in humanities majors nationally was due to a bubble of humanities majors that appeared in the 1970’s. Additionally, many of the humanities majors in the 1970’s were women who may have been more restricted in possible major choices. The national drop in humanities, then, represents “sort of a movement of women into areas of science, areas of engineering, where they have not had easy access in the past, so that’s actually a really healthy correction to what was sort of a warped picture,” according to Classics Professor Jeremy Lefkowitz.

“We spend all of our time, especially in the Classics department, studying worlds that don’t exist any more, where people created amazing things that have crumbled. We have this perspective that is biased toward thinking that things do fall apart, and that you have to cling desperately to the past or else it will be lost, that you have to work hard to preserve what has come before us,” said Lefkowitz. “I can show you texts from 2000 years ago, where Seneca is worried about the Classics dying — that’s how old this problem is. So it’s very hard for me, as someone who reads those texts, to get worried about the whole thing crumbling during my lifetime.”

Faculty tend to agree, however, that reversing the current trend must involve a concerted effort with the administration.

“The college needs the president and the provost and faculty leaders to clearly articulate why the humanities major is essential to professional development,” said Wallace. “I want the new president to articulate the vision for why the humanities is the third in a three-legged stool analogy — it’s one of the legs that prop up the stool of the liberal arts education […] We need the sciences, we need the social sciences, we need the humanities. Right now, the humanities are languishing, and we need vision and industry moving in that direction to support this division of the college.”

Possibly even more dramatic than  the decline in humanities majors is the decline in Honors majors. While participation has generally been steady between 30-35% of the graduating class — around 105 students — the past 3 years have seen an alarming drop in numbers, from 105 to 89 to 81 to around 74 in the class of 2015.

“We weren’t sure, when the first drop came, whether it was anomalous — then we got increasingly concerned about the drops,” said Williamson. “We don’t really know, for the 3-4 years, why the numbers have dropped […] when it’s all over, students to a very high percentage say that they enjoy taking their written exams and they really enjoyed spending time in the orals with their examiners. That’s something that kind of stresses them out beforehand, because they just think it’s going to be difficult. But we have good examiners — we pick them individually, we try to pick people who are working in small liberal arts institutions like Swarthmore. They read our students’ work, they come in, and they just have really interesting conversations with our students about the work, and our students really love that, and the examiners really love that.”

“One problem we’ve always had is that the juniors, when they go home at the end of the year, the seniors have just finished their written exams and are getting ready for their orals—they’re kind of in a high-stress state,” said Williamson. “So, when the orals are over, they’re just feeling really exultant about their honors programs, but the juniors have all gone, so they don’t get to see it.”

This isn’t the first time the Honors Program has been in jeopardy. In 1994, the Honors participation rate had dropped to around 18%, and the board of managers decided to intervene. The revised Honors program saw a decrease in required preparations from 6 to 4, as well as greater flexibility in preparations: students could study abroad or use artistic projects for honors. The reforms were effective — within a few years, Honors participation was back to around 30% of the graduating class.

“That solved the problem, for a while,” said Williamson. “But now, there’s a new set of problems, and I’m not sure how they’re going to be solved.”

As humanities majors usually make up the plurality of Honors participants, a decline in the former will cause a decline in the latter. “When you start to get a significant movement of students away from the humanities and into the natural sciences, which is what has been happening, then you’re going to have a certain droppage in the Honors Program,” said Williamson.

Some faculty members suggested another potential solution that could address both the decline in humanities and Honors majors—that the admissions office consider an applicant’s interest in or likelihood of choosing a humanities or Honors major. Currently, the College does not place much weight on an applicant’s intended major, with the exception of Engineering. Vice President and Dean of Admissions Jim Bock ’90 explained the policy, saying that the engineering program “sets Swarthmore apart from our peers,” as few liberal arts colleges offer engineering degrees, while “many of our peer colleges are experiencing a similar trend with fewer humanities majors.”

However, professors also identified potential problems with “admitting to a major,” such as the mentality that funding should reflect student interest.

“We act as though it’s sort of an open marketplace, and so if you’re not attracting the students, maybe there’s something wrong with your subject area, or your teaching methods, or something,” said Lefkowitz. “But if the incoming students are already sort of selected to go in certain directions, then it’s not really an open playing field. So, any idea that we’re all competing for students is out the window, because the students are already coming in or being chosen to come in with a certain set of interests already in place.”

Other faculty were more focused on avoiding putting up false distinctions between the different academic divisions. “At the college level, students and faculty and staff, that’s the kind of thinking that we need to foster—more than saying humanities is doing this, and social science is doing this, and natural science is doing this,” said Tomoko Sakomura, professor of Art History and Art Department Chair. “There was a student of mine in the past — I think he’s going through med school now — but he took a tea course with me, a Japanese tea culture course, and he said that at the interview to enter this med school, the interviewer said, ‘Tell us about this tea culture class you took.’ He was so surprised that at this medical school interview, he should be asked about this humanities course […] I think that does speak to something about the experience here.”

Featured image courtesy of

Matthew Chaffinch

Matthew is a junior from Delaware. He is a Contributing Editor for The Daily Gazette.


  1. Many science majors choose not to do Honors because there isn’t much advantages to doing Honors compared to course majors. For example, many humanities majors have small intimate seminars, and I would love to have that for the sciences too. However, currently the honors program in CS consists only of combinations of large regular courses, which only constrains student choices instead of providing an elevated intense learning experience. I propose that Swarthmore faculty should pay more attention to designing honors programs int he sciences so that they are just as fulfilling and rewarding as the Honors in humanities.

    • First, the CS honors program does not consist only of combinations of large regular courses. To complete it, you must complete “the course major, two 2-credit preparations, one 2-credit research report or thesis.”

      Second, the reason why the CS honors program is only combinations of other courses is that until we arrived there were only 10-12 people a year majoring in CS, which was not enough to sustain double-credit seminars. Five years ago, some of one’s single-credit preparations would have been roughly the size of other department’s seminars. However, this will probably never be the case ever again in the CS department.

      • Maybe some science departments should look to large departments in social sciences as models for an honors program. For example, econ and political science are some of the most popular majors yet they have a robust honors program with multiple seminars offered every semester. That’s why I decided to do Honors in Economics instead of CS.

        Just fact-checking: In CS a preparation means that you take two regular classes in related areas. So the main differentiation between honors and non-honors is that honors students stay on campus for their junior summer and do research for their thesis, while non-honors students can do research or also pursue other endeavors. I think the constrains on choice explain why we’ve only had a couple honors CS majors for the past few years versus 40+ course.

  2. Can I just say this is a really well-researched and well-written article. And on a fascinating topic.

    Thanks for writing it!

    Andrew Karas

    Former Editor-in-Chief
    The Daily Gazette

  3. Do we have any data about what people actually decide to major in? For example 20% of this years’ senior class was interested in majoring in the humanities when they entered Swarthmore – what percent will be graduating with a humanities degree?

    • John,
      The Office of Institutional Research does not publish these numbers specifically; however, they do publish this graph, which roughly plots the number of graduates in each division over time (rather than the relative frequency reported here). It does seem to validate some professors’ concerns about the decline, as the number of humanities graduates has dropped sharply in recent years, especially compared to the other concentrations.

      Matthew Chaffinch ’18
      Staff Writer
      The Daily Gazette

  4. If students are interested in startup stuff, it’s worth noting that a diverse background (genuine liberal arts education) is probably necessary to develop intuition about aspects of the world that lend themselves to technology-driven high-scale solutions.

    For instance, if you don’t understand how institutional poverty works and persists (which happens in part by having friends who are discussing this at Sharples), you’re gonna be really clueless (and kind of pathetic) when you try to design a startup to disrupt it. And, even worse, you’ll probably end up like those Dropbox guys on the SF soccer field eeek ( which no one wants.

    If we can agree to this, perhaps the CS department would do well by pushing this intuition and working with other departments (e.g., sociology, history, not economics they’re too obsessed with regression :-p) to consider how ideas of CS can be used in other disciplines (e.g., a common exercise: Could we have predicted the Enron crisis before it happened using semi supervised detection algorithms?).

  5. Maybe instead of focusing our efforts on “predicting the Enron crisis”, we would be better served to try and deincentivize the very sort of behavior that caused the crisis in the first place. Enron just did what any other company would have done in their position — try to maximize their returns, quarter after quarter, by any means necessary, sustainable or otherwise. An algorithm might have been able to catch Enron ‘in the act’, so to speak, but the crisis would never have occurred without the deregulation of the energy industry in California through the 90s.

    How does one start a startup to “disrupt institutional poverty”, exactly? Is it by paying its executive employees, whomever they may be, enormous sums (“competitive rates”)? Seems pretty counterintuitive, to me.

    But think of the millions to be made! /s

    You don’t need a “genuine liberal arts education” to effect change. In fact, it probably doesn’t help very much at all, if the history of social progress thus far is any indication. Liberal arts college is for learning as much as you can and/or acquiring useful credentials. The former is much more important to me than the latter, but there is no question that the reason colleges like Swat are around is to fulfill both purposes, with equal regard to each.

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