Curriculum and the Health of the Humanities

A brief follow-up to Tuesday’s post, “The Humanities in Crisis, or Not“…

Bethel Gen Ed Pillars
Two of the four pillars of the Bethel general education curriculum.

Historian Ben Schmidt (by way of journalist Jordan Weissmann) argued that any fear that the humanities (history, philosophy, literature, languages) are in crisis should be tempered by the reality that (aside from an outlying boom that peaked in 1966) those disciplines have about as many majors now (proportionally speaking) as at most times since World War II. I thought it was an important point, but also suggested that number/share of majors “isn’t the best measure of the rise or fall of the humanities, which are at the center of a model of education in which the major isn’t really all that important.” I wondered if, in fact, more students weren’t taking humanities courses now than in earlier decades, if only through their experience of core curricula like Bethel’s general education program (right).

Apparently, this had been a theme in the comments on Schmidt’s post as it appeared on his own blog. For example, Jim Grossman (executive director of the American Historical Association) wrote:

…as humanists our greatest potential influence on students is probably when we teach those who are major [sic] outside our departments. We need to stop thinking about such course [sic] as part of something called “general education,” and instead think of it as our opportunity to impart humanities learning to large numbers of students.

In response, Schmidt pointed to some (admittedly limited) course-taking data collected by the Department of Education and analyzed by Clifford Adelman: the college courses most commonly taken by students from the high school classes of 1972, 1982, and 1992 who went on to earn bachelor’s degrees. Here are the results for the courses that seem to fit “humanities” (expanding here to include art, music, and religion):

Course

Class of 1972

Class of 1982

Class of 1992

Freshman Composition

74.8%

80.5%

85.2%

U.S. History Survey

42.6%

36.9%

43.8%

Introductions to Literature

31.6%

24.4%

28.1%

Western Civ/Culture

29.8%

28.2%

23.4%

Intro to Philosophy

23.1%

23.3%

27.1%

Intro/Intermediate Spanish

18.3%

20.9%

28.6%

American Lit

23.6%

18.6%

20.9%

Art History

22.6%

21.2%

16.6%

Music History/Appreciation

16.2%

17.6%

17.3%

General/Comparative Religion

12.4%

11.1%

15.2%

Some of these (U.S. History, literature) seem to track with the pattern of students majoring in such fields: peaking in the late 1960s, declining steeply across the 1970s into the early 1980s, and then recovering somewhat by the early 1990s. Others (art history, Western Civ — though that one’s probably more about the rise of world history, which isn’t included here) didn’t get a bounce at the end of the 20th century. Some (Spanish, religion, philosophy, music) have actually become more popular. Freshman Comp is the big winner, but I think it’s a stretch to view that as having all that much to do with the health of the humanities — given how often a course like Bethel’s College Writing is taught by faculty from outside those disciplines, or by co-curricular staff.

And, of course, this data is hugely limited because we don’t yet have a study of the course-taking habits of the class of 2002, let alone 2012.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.