Decline in humanities majors causes concern for faculty, students

Data from the Office of Institutional Research shows that the percentage of humanities majors awarded as a proportion of all degrees fell from around 25% to 16% from 2005 to 2014 while the number of natural science majors increased considerably. This shift creates significant problems for the college administration as it battles to revive the beleaguered Honors Program, which the humanities division disproportionately supports, and decides how to allocate precious educational resources. Also, the change leads many students and faculty to question the state of the study of liberal arts at the college.

While some humanities departments, including theater and studio art, actually experienced an increase in the number of majors in the last decade, most humanities departments experienced decline or stagnation. This trend occurred even as a larger student body and more students double majoring increased the number of degrees awarded every year. religion and English, once popular majors, saw significant declines in this period. English, which in 1995 was the largest major at Swarthmore, in 2014 awarded just 19 degrees out of around 450 awarded across the college.

The decline in humanities majors corresponds to an increase in natural science majors, especially concentrated in computer science and mathematics. Computer science, which as recently as 2010 only awarded 11 degrees, now annually graduates over 40 majors making it one of the largest departments.

No parallel decline in humanities majors has occurred at Bryn Mawr and Haverford in the last ten years. According to data from their institutional research websites, both schools maintain about a 40% and 25% rate respectively of humanities majors in their graduating class.

The decline in the number of humanities majors partially explains the decrease in the number of students participating in the Honors Program. Historically, a greater proportion of humanities and social science majors participated in the Honors Program. Certain departments such as English and history (history, though not a humanities major, also experienced a significant decline in the number of majors in the last ten years) usually experience about a 50% participation rate in the Honors Program, while some very large departments like computer science oftentimes do not produce a single honors major.

The Curriculum Committee, a faculty committee responsible for administering the honors program, set out as its goal in 1995 to maintain about a 30% participation rate in honors. In 2015 the percentage fell to 18%, the lowest rate in decades. A historical precedent exists for declined interest in the honors program. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, the number of students participating in the honors program declined to a rate almost as low as today. According to Provost Tom Stephenson the nature of the decline in the 1980s and 1990s differed from the recent decline. The earlier decline occurred more slowly, was carefully studied, and was found to have resulted from a lack of flexibility in the program. The college administration is still trying to understand the reasons behind the recent decline.

“What we’re in right now is a two or three year decline that may or may not be part of a trend,” Stephenson said. “What we’re doing is looking at the data pretty closely to identify reasons for the decline.”

Stephenson said that so far the Curriculum Committee found that the rise in double majors, which is often suggested a reason for the decline, does not correlate to declined participation in honors.

Honors Program Coordinator and English Professor Craig Williamson proposed that increased concern among the student body about getting a job after graduation leads many to pursue majors they are not passionate about, meaning they are less motivated to pursue honors.

To combat the trend of decreased honors participation, the administration hopes to increase interest in the Honors Program in natural science departments, which have not historically had large honors programs. Williamson mentioned computer science specifically, which produces very few honors majors:

“The computer science faculty is struggling with this, and they are in the midst of making a new proposal for the honors program in their major to make it more workable and attract greater student interest.”

Apart from hurting the honors program, the decline in humanities majors leads many faculty to question how well Swarthmore currently fulfils the liberal arts ideal of a broad based, rigorous education across the disciplines.

“If you have a college in which basically 40% of the students are in natural sciences and 40% are in social sciences and 10% are in individual majors and 10% are in humanities majors then the importance of those humanities disciplines and the kinds of thinking and writing they value gets short-thrifted.” Williamson said.

Not only humanities students and faculty feel this way. Provost Stephenson, himself a Chemistry professor, said that the decline in humanities majors frustrates faculty in all departments.

Some students in humanities majors feel that they personally experience the effects of the decline in humanities majors.

“I tend to find that when I talk about philosophy, people generally don’t care. I think people tend to look at the job market and say ‘well nobody is taking their [humanities major] subject seriously so why should I take them seriously?’ and I think that’s a mistake.” said  philosophy major Jamie Gregora ‘16.

Anna Marfleet ’19, a prospective art and art history major, said that she thought the low number of art history majors negatively affected the curriculum.

“If you look at the art history courses offered they don’t seem to be geared towards art history majors but more towards people wanting to take fun light courses to fill out their schedules. It seems irresponsible to offer them and not offer survey courses that covers the full breadth of of the evolution of art in a culture across many years.”

Marfleet added that she felt the percentage of studio art majors who pursue double majors led many students to not take art courses as seriously as their other coursework.

The Class of 2015 produced slightly more humanities majors than in recent years, with humanities degrees comprising about 18% of those awarded. Also, according to Williamson, the current number of honors students in the senior and junior classes suggests an increased rate in honors participation in the next few years. Williamson pointed out, however, that these numbers were preliminary. The success of the college administration’s efforts to increase honors participation in the natural sciences division remains to be seen.

1 Comment

  1. I would be interested to know what the gender breakdown of this trend is. Are we successfully welcoming women into hard sciences at the expense of enrollment in humanities?

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