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Forget the discourse. The United States already has abandoned traditional subjects
A Twitter brushfire this weekend concerned a suggestion that perhaps colleges should recruit majors for subjects like history by teaching more popular topics, like war. This suggestion is a hardy perennial in the discourse, somewhat akin to fights over the “new math” and suggestions that we need to get back to basics or whatever. Like many such fights, it reflects as much as anything the enduring presuppositions of the participants, which tend to be drawn on a mix of aesthetic preferences regarding what college should be and unquestioned assumptions about what colleges are.
I’m not a big “data guy” in the sense that I don’t think that data can save us, but I do think that data can occasionally save us from ourselves. Systematically collected data can be subject to all numbers of biases and prejudices but it’s also the best tool we have to get away from problems like the availability heuristic or (to put it more bluntly) simple ignorance resulting from experience.
It’s worth exploring what the data can tell us about what college is like now. In particular, the key thing you have to grasp about contemporary U.S. higher ed is that it’s a STEM and vocational ed focused industry, with vastly less interest in non-STEM intellectual disciplines than even a generation ago.
So it is regarding college, in which the discourse is dominated by graduates of about 80 or so universities (and disproportionately by a couple of dozen of those) and, even further, by graduates of a handful of majors in those colleges. If you’re a Harvard philosophy major, you might really and genuinely think that philosophy is a big and important subject. In reality, there are generously only about 50,000 philosophy and religious studies majors in the United States (if we multiply the number of bachelor’s degrees in the subject in the latest Ed Department figures by four), a number that has barely budged since 1970 and which is in the same ballpark as the enrollment of the University of North Texas.
The traditional humanities disciplines can probably be defined in U.S. enrollment terms as philosophy, English, history, and theology. These are an incredible minority of degrees awarded. In 2020-2021, 2,066,445 bachelor’s degrees were awarded in the United States, of which a maximum of 215,314 were awarded in those fields. I say a maximum because, annoyingly, Ed defines “Social sciences and history” as one field, meaning that economics, political science, sociology, anthropology, and history together account for 160,827 degrees. I think we can subtract at least two-thirds of those degrees from the total, leaving us with a benchmark of about 100,000 traditional liberal arts/humanities degrees—or about 5 percent of the total. We can add back “Liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities” to get back 41,909 degrees, and “Foreign languages, literatures, and linguistics” gets back another 15,518, but now we are just dickering about whether the subjects that form the core of the campus-novel university are peripheral or marginal to the university.
(What of the blue-haired gender studies major that lives rent-free in the minds of bluechecks? All “Area, ethnic, cultural, gender, and group studies” majors combined account for 7,374 degrees awarded in the United States. That includes, say, Russian, Afro-American, Polish, Asian, and all the rest. That’s about one-third of one percent. When Redditor STEMlords wonder why anyone majors in gender studies, well, to a first approximation nobody does.)
The figure above shows selected majors’ degrees conferred over the past fifty years. I took about the top five or six majors in 1970 (education, business, social science, English, psych, and engineering) and 2020 (adding health, bio, and computer science) to highlight the changes in what universities do. The chart reveals plainly that universities are now principally in the vocational and medical / life sciences games, with broad provinces in the hard sciences. If we take just business, health professions, and biological/biomedical degrees, we get 790,892 degrees annually, or about 40 percent of the total. If we then look at the STEMistan fields of computer science, engineering, physics, math and stats, we get another 293,234 degrees. Combining “homeland security, law enforcement, and firefighting” with “parks, recreation, leisure, fitness, and kinesiology”, “agriculture and natural resources”, “public administration and social services”, and “Transportation and materials moving” gets us to 195,038. That’s well over a majority of degrees awarded.
In fact, calling this a two-cultures problem is wrong: there’s three cultures. One is (broadly) hard STEM—literal rocket science, programming, wet labs, and all of that. Another is traditional voc-ed, whether it be A&M subjects like farming or very applied subjects like kinesiology, criminal justice, and logistics. Then there’s the rump traditional university, with history, languages, and other traditionally essay-based disciplines (plus econ and psych, which are weird fits now), where people do something that’s distinctly different. I suspect the first two cultures can relate better to each other than to the third, and the third probably finds it hard to relate to the first.
What does this tell us? The shift in enrollment is not just major but tectonic. Look at that line for Education degrees ! Not only has enrollment in education declined in relative terms, it’s plummeted in absolute terms, from 176,307 degrees in 1970 to 89,398 in 2020. (Social sciences and history have remained about the same in absolute terms even as they’ve slipped in relative terms.) In many ways, the chart shows a rational response to falling school enrollments and wage signals, of course, but the chart is also useful as a reminder that universities have changed a lot in a short time — even in 2000, education was the third largest major, behind social sciences! If you’re trying to set policy based mostly on what you recall from your university experience, then you are wayyyyyy off in terms of what schools do now.
If you’re about 70 years old, the notion of a criminal justice major is probably foreign to you, since there were only 2,045 degrees awarded in 1970, but now there’s way more of them (58,009 degrees awarded) than there are of philosophy degrees. Like, way more. If your model doesn’t include that as a key output of the industry, your model’s wrong.
These figures also tell us that a lot of the fights over humanities and social science classes really come from general education requirements, not majors. If you’re a bio, business, or engineering major, you will probably spend 70 to 80 percent of your time doing something in a curriculum that is much different than the humanities culture. And the hell of it is that you are forced into those classes by degree requirements, while it’s rare for the converse to be true. (I got out of one science requirement with an Astronomy for Poets course! I learned a lot there, to be clear, but we don’t really have Political Science for Physicists courses—although I’d love to teach one.)
My point with this post isn’t to say whether this is good or bad. I’m so far assimilated into social science that all I care about here is describing and theorizing variation. Right now, I’m mostly focused on the former, but it’s remarkable to me how many commonplace message-board theories we can reject based on this. Universities have massively responded to student demand (and I don’t think they’ve been the prime movers in inducing this demand, either). That’s despite the fact that many of these undergrad programs are really expensive and really hard to staff (nursing programs tend to run at a loss; hiring computer science faculty is much much much harder than hiring historians!).
It also makes plain that administrators are not totally fools—if you’re hiring a faculty line on the tenure-track, you are placing a decades-long bet, and given this information would you start to wager on an exogenous resurrection of humanities courses? Without ample external (foundation, donor, or government) support, those bets are hard to place—especially when there’s a reserve army of academic labor. (Again, I’m not defending these decisions in a normative sense, but just pointing out that they’re not inexplicable or arbitrary.)
On a broader sense, though, I do wonder whether universities are wandering too far off course. American higher ed has long been relentlessly practical, particularly its public sector. But the twentieth century also saw the rise of an ideal in which higher ed would fit people to be better citizens, not just better workers. The large-scale abandonment of traditional subjects may not be driven by hostility to the better-citizen goal, but it’s worth wondering whether universities are actually making those habits democratic or whether they’re perversely restricting them to a niche audience.
We’ll talk more about the changing higher-ed landscape next week. More charts!
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