Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Declining Enrolment in the Humanities

Humanities scholars at leading universities decry declining enrolment in the humanities.  To address this concern, Stanford’s Faculty Senate heard a panel discussion of six humanities professors on March 3, 2011, on the difficulties facing 11 humanities departments.

The premise on which the discussion was based is that humanities have been a key part of a liberal arts education, which is being challenged by declining enrolments.  The panelists did not blame reduced financial support.  Indeed, 42% of the faculty in the School of Humanities and Science teach in the 11 humanities departments, even though enrolment is only 18% of undergraduate majors.

Explanations and solutions?  Tuition-paying parents (full fare exceeds $200,000 for four years) and students fear that the humanities do not provide employable skills compared with degrees in science and mathematics.  Career concerns are crowding out humanities majors.

Panelists suggested several remedies (although none addressed the basic question of the merits or relevance of the liberal arts education model in the twenty-first century).  One suggested recruiting more East Coast students that seem inclined towards the humanities.  Others suggested courses blending humanities with science and engineering.  And so on.

Analysis of political party registration reveals that over 90% of humanities professors at Stanford are Democrats.  Some departments have no registered Republicans at all.  Yet none of the six panelists breathed a word about intellectual diversity in the humanities, that is, more balance in courses offered.  (To the extent that left-leaning professors claim that their views do not influence their teaching, the same is surely true of avowed conservatives.)

Perhaps the most important factor is the changing ethnic/racial composition of the student body.  Each year Stanford publishes its Common Data Set, which includes information on the ethnic/racial composition of the student body, the percentage majoring in each field, (but not further divided by ethnicity/race), financial aid, and other data.  (Ethnic/racial enrolment data from 30-40 years ago are not available.)

For 2010-11, excluding the 1,129 from race/ethnicity that are unknown or are of two or more races (16.4%), the data reveal that of all enrolled undergraduates 17.8% are Asian, 7.2% nonresident aliens (most from Asia), 16.4% Hispanic, 7.3% Black or African American (non-Hispanic), and 34.1%  White (non-Hispanic).  Some fraction of the two-race students are part Asian.  Forty years ago, when I first set foot on campus, Asians were a much smaller share of undergraduate enrolment.

Degrees conferred in 2009-10 totaled 37.6% in the sciences and mathematics, of which a clear majority was earned by Asians.  Forty years ago, there was no Silicon Valley as we know it today.  The market has clearly shifted in favor of high-tech jobs.  Racial/ethnic enrolment reflects Asian emphasis in high-tech.  Barring a quota on or reduction in Asian enrolment, raising enrolment in the humanities at Stanford faces overwhelming odds.


joe said...

Perhaps the students also realize that the humanities have become bankrupt. The only analitical lens applied is race, gender or sexual orientation. Most recognize that this approach no longer supports critical thinking but uncontained criticsm. For those that are interested in doing rather than watching the humanities offer no profit.

Chick said...

What do humanitarians seek in lobbying for more humanitarian enrollment? Their own improved earnings and employment? Maybe be it is better government. A political registration favoring the Democratic Party - bigger government; redistributive/command economics - is appealing largely to the masses, largely the uneducated and ill informed. The yang is that they discourage individual initiative, private savings/investment, and growth. It seems that humanitarians prefer "democratic" rule by the masses, than the enterprise of individuals seeking to open up new knowledge - largely the scientifically inclined, responding to human needs and expectations manifested in their hopes expressed in their collective, namely, the market.

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