Quantifying the Crisis in Humanities at Christian Colleges

So is Messiah College history professor John Fea correct that “Enrollments in humanities fields — history, philosophy, literature, theology — at evangelical colleges have experienced a precipitous decline over the last decade”? Last week I looked at my own institution to begin to offer an answer to that question. But I admitted that I didn’t know whether the patterns I was seeing at Bethel — and what John may have witnessed at Messiah — prevail throughout the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU).

Fortunately, my retired colleague Rich Sherry happened to read my post and knew something I had forgotten: that among the other data supplied to the U.S. Department of Education by institutions of higher learning are the fields for degrees completed. Rich was kind enough to pull those figures from the IPEDS data center for CCCU schools for the period 2004-2014 and send them to me as a spreadsheet.

Here it is, with a few calculations of my own, in case you’d like to dive into these numbers yourself. But let’s start by contrasting total enrollment in three humanities disciplines (English, history, philosophy) with the three professional programs I mentioned last week (business, education, nursing).

Graph showing enrollment in humanities and professional programs at CCCU schools (as a percentage of bachelor's degrees granted) from 2004 to 2014
Note: For each year charted, I’ve tried only to include institutions that were actually in the CCCU at that time. But the figures don’t change dramatically year by year if you include every school that was a member in 2014.

I’m tempted to linger on the surprising decline of business degrees (from nearly 30% in 2004 to just over 22% ten years later) and the rise of nursing. (In 2014 Indiana Wesleyan alone graduated over 900 nurses, a total larger than that for all history or philosophy degrees in the CCCU.)

But our focus is the humanities, which have fallen from 7.5% in 2004 to 5.5% in 2014.

That might not seem like “precipitous decline.” In fact, one might argue instead that the humanities have simply never been strong in CCCU schools. I did a bit of IPEDS research of my own here, going back one more decade to pull similar figures from 1994. Unfortunately, back then the Education Department clustered History with “Social Sciences,” so a full comparison is tricky. But we can easily put English and Philosophy side by side:

1994

2004

2014

English

4.0%

3.2%

2.6%

Philosophy

1.8%

2.4%

1.4%

Ten years after Mark Noll lamented The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, the study of literature and writing was already tailing off. And while it could be argued that Noll and others helped spark new evangelical interest in philosophy, that discipline has been hit hard in the CCCU in recent years, losing a full percentage point of enrollment share and slipping behind where it had been in the early Nineties.

Noll, Scandal of the Evangelical MindAnd in reality, the news for Christian philosophers is probably worse than that. The IPEDS “philosophy” category includes religious studies, and it’s clear that some institutions have been rather loose with their definitions of that field. For example, according to the data supplied by Anderson University (SC), over 7% of its 2014 degrees were in philosophy/religion — but Anderson doesn’t offer a major in either philosophy or religious studies. I assume it’s instead reporting at least some of the degrees in its College of Christian Studies, undergraduate programs that “prepare ministers” and “emphasize practical training” — not exactly what John had in mind as the purpose of the “humanities.”

(At the same time, however, note that I omitted theology from the humanities total. While several CCCU members do report degrees in the IPEDS theology category, others do not. Bethel, for example, combines biblical studies with theology and so doesn’t report any theology majors per se. Rich pulled another category that straddled Bible/theology which is listed on a separate page in the spreadsheet. But I didn’t use it for my calculations because it included more “practical” ministry emphases — including Bethel’s degree-completion program in Christian Ministries.)

Philosophy has long been an awkward fit on many CCCU campuses, but it’s striking to see the growing number of schools awarding not one degree in philosophy: about 29% of the CCCU membership in 2004; over 35% of a larger consortium in 2014. In that time, even schools with strong humanities programs have seen philosophy evaporate, including Asbury University, which had nearly 3% of its 2004 bachelor’s degrees go to philosophy majors but didn’t award any in that field in 2014.

But even more strikingly, Asbury’s English department has seen its share of graduates plummet from 12% (higher even than business in 2004) to 5% in the same time period. (I’d be tempted to attribute this to growing enrollment in the school’s College of Business and its degree-completion programs, but even in absolute terms, the number of English grads has decreased by over 50%.) And the experience of Asbury suggests the real reason that I think we can reasonably talk about a “precipitous decline” in the humanities.

While disciplines like English, history, and especially philosophy have never been very strong in Christian higher ed, there have been some notable exceptions to that rule — including Asbury, where my best friend in grad school had majored in philosophy and music and where Rich once taught English literature. And it’s when you look at those evangelical liberal arts colleges with strong academic reputations that you see truly alarming decline: (I include Bethel and Messiah here solely because they’re the institutions John and I know best)

Graph showing declining enrollment in humanities fields (English, history, philosophy) at selected Christian liberal arts colleges since 2004

For the whole CCCU, 2008 was when a significant two-year decline in humanities graduates can first be observed (from 7.5% to 6.7%). But even flagship liberal arts institutions that initially resisted that trend fell victim to it starting in 2010. For example, humanities at Gordon fell off slightly from 2008 to 2010, but then lost a third of their share of graduates from 2010 (24%) to 2012 (16%). Humanities at Wheaton actually grew slightly as the first decade of the century ended, then the English and philosophy graduate shares at that college each fell by a full point from 2010 to 2012.  For the History department, the decline took two more years to be felt, but was even larger (from 4.0% in 2012 to 2.6% two years later).

The less said here about my own institution’s recent history, the better. I’d rather go into my sabbatical feeling optimistic about a near-future that should see the birth of a digital humanities program.

(Given how much grading I have to do, I’m going to resist the urge to dive back into IPEDS. But I suspect that I would find similar declines in art history, classics, languages, and theatre, some of the fields recommended for elimination by Calvin College last fall, an announcement that sparked heated debate about that institution’s commitment to the liberal arts.)

There are exceptions to the general rule of humanities in crisis at Christian colleges. As recently as 2008, Regent University didn’t award any degrees in our three humanities disciplines; by 2014 those fields accounted for one in six Regent grads, with English alone surpassing 10% (though I wonder if communication degrees are reported separately; it’s a single department at Regent) and the two others both near 3%. Covenant College leads the way in the CCCU, with over 22% of its students graduating with majors in the humanities — almost seven points higher than the same statistic for 2004.

But I think there’s enough evidence here to support a modified version of John’s basic claim:

The humanities, never especially strong on evangelical colleges, have been losing ground for at least a decade, nowhere faster than in schools where they once had relative strength.

Next time, I want to ask (briefly) what accounts for this change — and then to offer my own variation on John’s actual argument: that the decline of the humanities speaks to larger problems for Christian colleges and their evangelical constituencies.


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