How Common Is the History Major among Christian Colleges?

Earlier this summer I argued on Substack that you can’t really call yourself a liberal arts college if you’re not offering liberal arts majors. As my Bethel colleague Jim Beilby correctly intuited in his response, I didn’t mean that it’s necessary to offer an entire array of every field in the arts, humanities, and sciences. (Few private colleges can afford to offer that many distinct fields of study.) I’ll happily accept Jim’s suggested rephrase: “a liberal arts institution must have some appropriate range of liberal arts majors: Philosophy, History, English, Theology, etc.” It’s when a school dispenses with almost every major in the arts and humanities — as Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota did — that I think we run into the arguments that I made earlier.

So just how common is it for liberal arts colleges still to offer that necessary range, after almost a decade of liberal arts program contraction — particularly in the arts, humanities, and social sciences?

Earlier this summer I spent time going through the websites — and, if necessary, directories and academic catalogs — of all governing members and collaborative partners in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) — plus, for comparison’s sake, the Minnesota Private College Council and a few other Christian colleges and universities that aren’t in the CCCU. I didn’t try to keep track of every major in the arts, humanities, and sciences. Instead, I looked for majors in my own discipline, History, and the two that share our department at Bethel, Philosophy and Political Science. (Note: our mildly clever acronym that you’ll see in the spreadsheet below is “HiPPos.”)

The door sign at Bethel University (MN) for the Department of History, Philosophy, and Political Science

A few notes about my methodology:

• I left out Baylor (a Research One university on the CCCU list) and Liberty and Grand Canyon (from the “CCCU adjacent” set) because their enrollment is many times larger than the schools I’m interested in.

• In some cases, institutions offered these disciplines in combination with each other or other fields. I didn’t count majors in, say, “History and Politics” or “Theology & Philosophy” toward my “% having major” final tally, but I did record them in the spreadsheet.

• In addition to looking for programs, I tried my best to estimate how many active full-time faculty had titles in History, Philosophy, or Political Science, since a big part of my argument was that it wasn’t enough to simply offer adjunct-taught, gen ed introductions to liberal arts fields. It wasn’t unusual to see (a) joint appointments and (b) faculty who also served as some form of provost, dean, or other kind of administrator beyond just coordinating a program. In those cases, I gave credit for half a position towards the disciplinary total for the institution.

• Caveat lector — let the reader beware: the academic sections of college websites are not always updated regularly (e.g., Saint Mary’s still listed its History major at the time I did this exercise), and sometimes I had to try to reconcile conflicting information from a catalog and a webpage. For some institutions, it was especially difficult to get an accurate faculty count. If you’d like to suggest a correction, just email me.

With all that said, here’s the spreadsheet — or just scroll down for some preliminary findings:

Among the 121 CCCU institutions I surveyed, 87% still had a traditional History major. Of the sixteen that didn’t, just over half offered a major combining History with Education or Political Science. Two offered just a minor in History, and four not even that. Of the sixteen colleges without History majors, only two had more than 1,500 undergraduates.

From looking at dozens of these websites, my rough sense is that History still joins Art, Biblical Studies/Theology, Biology, English, Mathematics, Music, and Psychology as the core of liberal arts majors that are most common at Christian colleges — more notable by their absence than their presence on a list of undergraduate programs. A few other hard sciences — Chemistry, Physics, Computer Science, and increasingly Exercise Science/Kinesiology — seemed just a bit less typical, perhaps because smaller colleges in the consortium might not be able to afford the specialized equipment and facilities such studies can require.

By contrast, it’s more of a coin flip as to whether a Christian college list a Political Science major, like those in other social sciences. 59% of the CCCU institutions offered that degree, and several others either combined it with History or Law, or had a Politics or Government concentration within something like a Social Sciences major. But about 20% offered no Political Science program at all, major or minor. (Increasingly, it seemed that Criminal Justice had overtaken politics or government more broadly defined at such schools, likely because it’s perceived as a more in-demand professional field.)

Least common of all, to my disappointment and non-surprise, was Philosophy, found as its own major at only one in three of these CCCU institutions, with about a dozen more making Philosophy available as part of a Religion, Theology, or Christian Studies program. Even back in 2013, when I first attempted a Philosophy-only version of this exercise, less than half of CCCU members had that major, but the share then was a bit higher (41%).

As striking is the tiny number of Philosophy faculty: the average CCCU institution in my set had 1.02 FTE in Philosophy. (And I’m not even looking at “associate members” that often focus on ministry-related degrees.) And about half had no active full-time philosopher or (in about half a dozen cases) only one shared appointment in Bible, Religion, or Theology. By contrast, that same average institution currently has 2.66 full-time historians and 1.32 political scientists on its faculty.

On average, the present-day CCCU member employs one History, Philosophy, or Political Science professor for every 441 undergraduates. Bethel (249 per HiPPos prof) ranks 30th on that list, in the same neighborhood as Dordt (226), Whitworth (236), Seattle Pacific (245), Taylor (251), John Brown (261), and Oklahoma Baptist (268). Only three institutions are under 100 by that count: Wheaton, Westmont, and Covenant College, one of only two CCCU schools enrolling fewer than 1,000 undergraduates to offer all three majors. (Houghton is the other.)