The Liberal Arts Are on Life Support

A couple of weeks ago, I was floating around two pitches. My usual place to publish is backed up with content, so I talked with alternative places. Topic A was quickly snapped up, so Topic B was put on the back burner. Between the Topic A article, research on a Topic Q for another venue, and multiple essays for a third outlet, I’m booked solid for the rest of the month. I have no idea how I’m going to Christmas shop or take care of other mom business this month.

I think I need to hire help, but that’s another blog post.

I’m still going to write about Topic B after the holidays, but I wish I was working on it right now, because it’s the hot topic suddenly. Topic B was about the death of the liberal arts majors.

This chart went viral yesterday.

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This chart came out of research done for the AHA conference, and shows a dramatic drop in the number of history majors since 2008. I could have told you that. Actually, I did tell several editors that just a couple of weeks ago.

(I probably shouldn’t be writing about this here, but – fuck it – I want to talk. Steve will yell at me later for being a big mouth.)

Alright, lots to pull apart here. First of all, 2008 was a huge turning point in the middle class mentality. People lost jobs. A few years later, Steve lost his job, just as my university job was ending. We were scared shitless. And so was everyone else around us. Our area’s prosperity – from contractors to accountants – is very tied to the fortunes of Wall Street. You didn’t have to be a broker to lose your job back then.

Secondly, the obvious. Nobody is majoring in history, English, and Philosophy anymore. Yeah, I could have told you that. My friends at small liberal arts colleges have been teaching empty classes for the past few years. Crickets. So, they’ve been reassigned to teaching freshman seminars or put into administration.

The liberal arts, at 90 percent of the colleges out there, are done. So, all that punditry about the commie college students and the liberal bias of faculty and the attack on free speech is just silly. Most students aren’t women’s studies majors at Wellesley. They are either business majors at a public college, or they’re hustling two jobs while taking a class at the local community college.

Third, let’s talk about majors. This is a taboo topic in academia, but I’m in a MOOD today, so here goes. Some majors are easy, others are medium, and some are hard. You are absolutely not allowed to say that in academic circles, but it’s the truth.

See that exercise science at the topic of that chart? And recreation and leisure studies? Those are the top of the list, because the chart is measuring the rate of change, not an actual number of majors. It doesn’t mean that most kids in college are exercise majors, but it shows that there has been a big uptick in those majors. You know why? (Oh God, I could get killed for saying this…) It’s for kids who ordinarily wouldn’t be going to college or were admitted and are floundering. It’s a way for the colleges to maintain their retention rates. Those majors are easy.

And those majors are a waste of time. Kids who receive majors in those fields, who lack a parent with deep pockets and connections to make sure they get their first job, end up at jobs that don’t require a BA. They end up behind the counter at rental car companies. It’s a terrible scam on those poor kids. I’ve talked with sociologists who study this.

Lastly, this is a very sad chart, because I love the liberal arts. I love Plato and Rousseau and Homer and Bronte and Shakespeare. My undergraduate years, where I roamed freely between art history and English and anthropology classes, were a brain-feast. I would take all those classes again tomorrow. I’m very sorry that the practical minded students (and their pushy parents) have walked away from greatness.

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98 thoughts on “The Liberal Arts Are on Life Support

  1. What is the chart measuring? Change between 2011 and 2017, or change since 2008?

    I don’t think the liberal arts are done, I think it is cyclical and more students will come back to them in time. They may choose double majors (math and economics or anthropology and marketing) but many will take those classes.

    I do agree that the reason we see so many more in vocational areas is partially a change in who is attending college. Nurses used to go to nursing school, not a college. Jobs that used to use vocational training are now housed in colleges and universities, so the number of vocational degrees at colleges and universities have risen.

  2. I’m teaching Higher Ed in my Education Policy class right now. We were talking about Academically Adrift and whether students are actually learning. It was an interesting conversation. My students admitted to me that they shop classes by how easy they are – find the syllabus, check out how much reading and writing are required, and drop those that are too hard. I guess I didn’t really realize how much they did this.

    Also, we just pushed through a new interdisciplinary public administration major housed in our political science department, for the reasons you cite about – kids want good, reliable jobs. This chart makes me glad we did that.

  3. There’s also a two-stage process: first, convince the faculty or whoever runs the university that exercise science is an acceptable college major (or construction management, or law enforcement). Then, once it’s established, say that it’s ridiculous to make students who are getting a degree in these fields take traditional college classes like history or philosophy. This makes it unlikely that a student who comes or is sent to college with the intent of doing a “practical” degree will get lured over into taking these kinds of courses and perhaps switch majors or add a minor.

    A lot of the majors at the top are hard-core, and if I can get a Comp Sci or Nursing or Engineering major to take one of my on-the-decline humanities classes as a gen ed, that’s fantastic and they almost always enjoy it, do well, and benefit from it. As one of my students said long ago, they suddenly realize what college is.

  4. Little of what you’re posting here corresponds to what I see in higher ed. But I have to teach in 50 minutes, so I’ll just say that over the past 7 years, we have *added* liberal arts majors to attract more enrollment. And we have been asked to develop more. Our new poli-sci major is booming, for example, and we’re attracting great students.

  5. I have a cousin who studied recreation science. He now runs an exercise program in a prison. I think that it’s working well for him.

      1. Anyway, I had to restrain myself one Thanksgiving from saying, “How are you ever going to get a job with that”, but it worked for him.

    1. Sometimes I think that knowing how to hustle and get a job is as valuable as whatever you study to prepare for a job. In the case of your cousin it sounds like he’s a resourceful person who can navigate the job scene with skill.

    2. By the way, I’m reading “Delivered from Distraction” right now (it’s a book about ADHD), and one of the interesting facts I’ve learned from that book is that exercise is extremely valuable for managing ADHD.

      Also, prisons contain a lot of people with undiagnosed ADHD.

      So, I think there’s a lot of social value in MH’s cousin’s job.

  6. I suspect that much of the drop in English and also Poli Sci, maybe some of History also, is because of the problems in the legal field. Law school is no longer a safe-ish path to good salary for everybody who can take a standardised test well.

  7. I suspect that small liberal arts colleges are in more trouble than the liberal arts overall. Not all small liberal arts colleges, but the ones without a strong national or regional reputation.

    1. My gut tells me that the decline in the liberal arts is most obvious at any schools that aren’t in the upper tier. Those parents and families are extremely worried about their kids’ employment status. They can’t hand their kids jobs when they graduate. But I’m also hearing this tale at upper tier schools. When I finish this article, I’m going to start talking to some contacts that I have at Villanova. The business program is super, super competitive.

      Tangent. Nursing schools are super hard to get into now. It’s harder to get into the nursing program at Rutgers than their Liberal Arts school.

      1. There is a substantial male nursing population here now. I wouldn’t be able to put a number to it, but it’s noticable. You can afford a house on a nurses salary here.

      2. It seems it was either different when I was growing up or my dad was off trend. He specifically told his kids to think of undergraduate education as character formation and basic grounding and then to do graduate or professional school if we needed a trade. Of course, he also told us that he’d pay for our whole undergraduate education, at least for four years.

      3. It’s good that it is hard to get into nursing. If the nurse screws up calculating a fraction, they can kill someone.

      4. Nursing is a good example of trade=/=not rigorous. Registered nurses must often calculate doses. You can’t be dumb and be a nurse. That doesn’t mean it has to be in a college. But colleges have transformed themselves to offer many programs that we used to think of as trades. What is the benefit of going to a university for a graphic design degree rather than an art school like Parsons?

      5. I had a regular check up yesterday and I grilled the nurses and my doctor about job and training of nurses. The gossip is that it’s SUPER hard to get a degree now. They are getting degrees through college, community colleges, and trade schools. And the job market is saturated. They’re going for a year after graduation without work. There are no sure bets anymore.

      6. To advance in nursing, you pretty much need the Bachelor degree. It’s been that way for decades. They, meaning those with BSNs or higher, very much think of themselves as a profession, not a trade. I think they’re right.

      7. My middle-tier state university started a nursing program 7-8 years ago with plans to graduate 50 students a year. It is an excellent program but is only graduating 30 a year because not enough students who want to go into nursing have the academic chops to make it through. They have done a good job coming up with easier nursing-adjacent majors for these students to get into (and they are usually diligent students, so they stay in and graduate – at least this is the buzz). But they had been assuming that it would be constantly filling and in high demand. This may be because too many schools had the same idea.

    2. How would you know? Were you informed by “small liberal arts colleges”? The student and graduates of those do not conform to your descriptions–WTF do your comments even mean?

  8. I’m intrigued by the Physics/Math and Statistics ranking. I believe it’s part of a phenomenon I’ve heard from and economics professor at a public R1 –kids are shut out of computer science as a major and are picking quantitative majors in other fields. The prof described the shock of the math profs, who are used to having airy-headed math geeks in their classes suddenly being faced with career-oriented CS/startup/blockchain/AI enthusiasts.

    I think a lot of this conversation ends up being about what kids should do when deciding on colleges or what colleges should do. But, I think the real problem in decision making is the trends in the economy, towards insecure, rapidly changing, casual labor (and an unwillingness to provide on the job training).

    Finding a job when you come out of college is important so the short term solutions might be important, but, I don’t know how much they’ll be important in the long run.

    1. I’m intrigued by the Physics/Math and Statistics ranking. I believe it’s part of a phenomenon I’ve heard from and economics professor at a public R1 –kids are shut out of computer science as a major and are picking quantitative majors in other fields. The prof described the shock of the math profs, who are used to having airy-headed math geeks in their classes suddenly being faced with career-oriented CS/startup/blockchain/AI enthusiasts.

      I think that this sort of, but not entirely, correct. Rather, I think that a lot of kids are wanting to jump on the big data gravy train and realizing that a math/econ curriculum with some coding is as good as or better than a CS degree. They can do the machine learning stuff without having to deal with compiler design or Turing machines.

      This is almost the same as the 1990s, where people who didn’t want to (or weren’t gifted enough to) major in engineering but wanted to work with the interwebs majored in management information theory or graphic design so that they could do project management or build web sites. Of course, when the field collapsed then they were the first people (deservedly) shaken out, but I am more sanguine about the math majors.

      1. In my experience, the phrase ”big data” means so many different things to different people they you may as well put it on your resumé regardless of what you do.

      2. “Rather, I think that a lot of kids are wanting to jump on the big data gravy train”

        I have a story!

        We eat a lot in our college cafeterias, and at some point recently, I saw a student (black male) wearing a t-shirt that said, “I love big data and I cannot lie.”

      1. I agree that “Big Data” may be driving a lot of the boom in statistics. A lot of 40-50 year old software engineers who have had successful careers for the last two decades are suddenly having to bone up on statistics, as well as other obscure (to us) branches of math like linear algebra or vector calculus. None of the rising methodologies require much more math than what you’d be likely to get from an intro-level class, but–for most of us –those subjects have been far more irrelevant to our pre-2015 careers than the humanities have been.

  9. I am really sad about students abandoning History, Literature and Philosophy. I see greatness in Plato, Hume and Homer too. But I would like to think that not all science mayors are kids looking for easy money. I see greatness in Newton, Watson/Crick/Franklin and Dijkstra too.
    I do not see it in Zuckerberg or Bezos

    Maria

  10. I left an adjunct gig after ten years when the university asked me to adapt my face-to-face (medieval literature) courses for an online program with mission statements that emphasized “workplace relevance.” Meanwhile, at my alma mater, English majors now have to take only three required courses, which they choose from three different lists, and then they make up their own curriculum, which doesn’t project an air of seriousness or rigor. Whatever the big picture may be, I’d be curious to know what specifically is happening at the schools where liberal-arts majors are indeed declining. Maybe universities themselves are doing things that turn students and their tuition-paying parents away from the liberal arts?

    1. Jeff S. said,

      “I left an adjunct gig after ten years when the university asked me to adapt my face-to-face (medieval literature) courses for an online program with mission statements that emphasized “workplace relevance.””

      *facepalm*

  11. Some of the change may be due to hype around STEM, but isn’t a lot of the change the result of college costs spiraling out of control? Taking four years to improve your character, expand your mind, and become an adult is noble, but once it costs $200,000 it starts to look impecunious. I suspect that parents and students are being forced into harsh (and often poorly-informed) ROI calculations.

  12. “.. four years to improve your character, expand your mind, and become an adult is noble, but once it costs $200,000..” I kind of suspect that if I were an 18 year old white guy I would consider that two hundred grand to be told I was vile and that my every interaction with young women was suspect is a dubious investment. And, the young women are going to think twice about putting that kind of money into a heavily female environment where all the guys who are there are running scared.

    1. If you were an 18 year old white guy reading the tea leaves of today’s job market, would it be worth $200,000 to study German? Because–outside of NYU, perhaps–foreign language majors are disappearing as fast as history majors, and departments are being eliminated at a lot of schools.

    1. Lewis, he said “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”
      Myself, I am fond of men with chests. YMMD.

      1. What does it mean to be a “man with a chest?” Personally, I find the type of man who curls into a fetal ball or throws a tantrum when they are confronted with the ideas of structural inequality or privilege to be the worst sort of “chestless” cowards. It takes a certain amount of intellectual integrity to recognize that you aren’t always where you are on strict merit and deal with your place in the world. These sorts of cowards are lacking this integrity in spades.

        It seems, on the other hand, that you yearn for the days when “Mad Men” wasn’t a semi-dystopian cultural commentary but rather the way things work. It seems like what you want is more Donald Trumps and Don Drapers and Harvey Weinsteins. You can want what you want, of course, but it’s not like you have ever made a coherent argument as to what we are losing by discouraging the casual racism and male sexual entitlement and frat boy culture run amok. If you want to try then go ahead but I’ve never seen anything remotely compelling.

        I hire and work with a good number of recent male college graduates, from a range of backgrounds varying from ivy league to top liberal arts schools to flagship state universities to directional state schools. They seem to have no trouble rolling their eyes at the ludicrous “Office Space” aspects of HR while accepting the fact that the underlying social contract has changed. Most of them think that the tradeoffs are a positive good. They recognize that our work is more productive and enjoyable when their female colleagues aren’t cringing while they have their own way. Of course, we go to a great deal of effort to not hire the James Damores of the world and encouraging them to move on when we’ve made that mistake. However technically proficient they are, unless they are mega-superstars (in which case the management headache that they become is grudgingly accommodated) they are net debits in the cost-benefit equation and not worth the trouble.

  13. Along the lines of several other commenters, who would pay $250,000 (or whose parents would pay) to take history courses in which they are told that “the white race is the cancer of human history” (as one famous intellectual put it). It might be fun for me to match my wits against Wendy and Laura in the classroom, but it wouldn’t be $250K worth of fun. So despite what Laura says, I think the extreme left-wing views associated with the humanities at HYP do put students off.

      1. Maybe offer as an alternative that the white race is the athlete’s foot of human history? Measles? Clubfoot? Acne on the face of humankind? I mean, cancer seems so… negative…

    1. “It might be fun for me to match my wits against Wendy and Laura in the classroom,”

      What makes you think I wouldn’t be on your side in the classroom?

  14. But we’re not disagreeing, Y81. In fact, I totally agree with you. My point was that the typical college student is no longer the leftie Humanities student, so I think that that all the rhetoric about the commie college students is overblown. Most students (and their parents) are very serious and fearful about the job market. They are avoiding majors that seem to them to be “not serious.” I’ve talked with students who stayed away from classes filled with “girls with green hair.” Their number one concern is getting a job, not political ideology. And the cost of their education is a huge factor.

  15. See that exercise science at the topic of that chart? And recreation and leisure studies? Those are the top of the list, because the chart is measuring the rate of change, not an actual number of majors. It doesn’t mean that most kids in college are exercise majors, but it shows that there has been a big uptick in those majors. You know why? (Oh God, I could get killed for saying this…) It’s for kids who ordinarily wouldn’t be going to college or were admitted and are floundering.

    Also, student athletes. That’s probably what they are all studying these days. Of course, most of them fall into the “college is really wasted on these people” category.

    When I was doing student-athlete tutoring at a Big 10 school (and I could tell you amazing stories about some household names) those majors and communications were the big ones among the rockheads. Personally, communications is the major that most signals to me “I’m an anti-intellectual who learned nothing in college and didn’t really want to” but YMMV.

  16. Secondly, the obvious. Nobody is majoring in history, English, and Philosophy anymore

    That’s not what the numbers say. A 30% decline means that a department with 30 majors now has 20-22. Not entirely the dystopia you make it out to be.

    1. When I took #1 to JMU for a campus visit I saw a number of young women wearing purple tee shirts which said “James Madison English. Going For Broke”.

      1. That reminds me of a guy who was an administrator/teacher at our kids’ private school. He told the kids, “I majored in unemployment.”

        (I’m assuming from context that it was either philosophy or great texts.)

    2. This is a super important point. At my institution, our political science major used to have 160 students; we now have about 120. ~25% decline Our Math department has gone up – from about 40 to 50. ~25 increase. We still have double the majors they do.

      1. Yes, reporting percent changes without baselines is one of those things that makes my head explode. We should see this same chart showing the number of individuals in each major, in 2011 and 2017. I was letting myself be tricked by looking at how high the Physics major was on the chart without remembering how few people major in Physics.

  17. Some majors are easy, others are medium, and some are hard. You are absolutely not allowed to say that in academic circles, but it’s the truth.

    Who says nobody talks about it? That’s not my lived experience. When I was on the faculty of a liberal arts college we totally discussed it. I remember a conversation I had with a friend in the modern languages department, in which I complained that the humanities grade inflation was undermining what we were doing in the sciences. Her cold-blooded response was that that was the social contract that they had, in that people took their classes in exchange for not having to get Cs and Ds and that if they were as difficult as the sciences and hard social sciences, people would just study those instead.

    The thing is, the roots of this grade inflation actually go back to the Vietnam war, when giving failing grades meant tossing people to the draft. Faculty in the 70s were often unwilling to do that. This was the case across the curriculum, but the older faculty from that era who were the biggest grade inflators seemed to come more from the humanities. The math and science faculty were more (although not universally) cold-blooded about this.

    1. “Some majors are easy, others are medium, and some are hard. You are absolutely not allowed to say that in academic circles, but it’s the truth.

      Who says nobody talks about it?”

      I didn’t notice this before (crazy busy). OMG, we all know what the easy majors are. Back at Cornell in the 80s, the hockey players were all Ag Ec (communications) majors.

      1. Btw, Laura, have you asked employers what they are looking for? Have you looked at job ads? I look at a lot of job ads (as my husband is in a short-term contract right now) and they are … interesting.

      2. Well, as an employer, if you’re talking about undergraduates–whom we hire as paralegals–we aren’t looking for STEM majors particularly, but we prefer students (i) from good colleges (which basically means Ivy or equivalent) (ii) with decent GPAs (say 3.25 or higher) and (iii) majors we have heard of (which means definitely not any sort of “victim studies,” but English, history, a foreign language, etc.). That said, the best paralegal we ever hired came from Lake Forest with a 3.5 GPA. I wish I knew how to find her again and again.

      3. Are your paralegals on to law school, eventually (or, at least something else)? I’m guessing so from the qualifications (and, know a harvard grad who was a poet who is working as a paralegal at a major NY firm, probably on his way to law school, but, maybe still thinking about being a poet).

        When I hired techs, I’d have said a college grad, from an R1 (which could include an Ivy, but we were a bit more suspicious of those students) with lab experience. Major didn’t really matter, but, there are few english/communications/etc. majors with lab experience. But, techs were generally seen as short term jobs on the way to graduate school.

    2. Well, as an employer, if you’re talking about undergraduates–whom we hire as paralegals–we aren’t looking for STEM majors particularly, but we prefer students (i) from good colleges (which basically means Ivy or equivalent) (ii) with decent GPAs (say 3.25 or higher)

      Well, given that the median grade at Harvard is an A- and the modal grade is an A, 3.25 doesn’t strike me as all that impressive. Probably at this point you are in the “talentless legacy” pool of Ivy league grads and I can’t imagine that being all that promising. I remember my professional encounters with a big 3 Ivy grad with similar “This must have been one of the worst students in recent memory” and “His parents and grandparents must have donated a crapload of cash.”

      We do better interviewing and hiring top (3.9 and above) graduates of flagship state universities, especially out of the honors colleges. At schools of that size, talent and grades are normally distributed so the summas and magnas are usually pretty reasonable candidates. That said, we mostly shy away from the B students. We often look, but mostly don’t touch. We want the A/A- students from those schools.

      That is, unless you are all Ivy leaguers looking for someone who culturally fits into the club. Then you’re interviewing who you want, I guess.

      That said, the best paralegal we ever hired came from Lake Forest with a 3.5 GPA. I wish I knew how to find her again and again.

      Like I said above, go after the very top graduates of the top state schools. I would give them better odds than the dregs of the Ivies.

      1. We do better interviewing and hiring top (3.9 and above) graduates of flagship state universities, especially out of the honors colleges.

        That’s basically me. Or, was me some decades ago.

      2. We don’t get a lot of applicants (none, really, that I can recall) with top grades from flagship state universities. Maybe people like that don’t move to New York? It’s either halfway decent grades from the Ivies, or halfway decent grades from schools further down the ladder. I should note, that many applicants for entry-level paralegal jobs are somewhat aimless. Some of them eventually go to law school, some settle in and become conscientious, excellent paralegals, some get fired.

      3. We don’t get a lot of applicants (none, really, that I can recall) with top grades from flagship state universities.

        Recruiting opportunity? Call the chairs of the History and English departments at some Big 10 schools and have them put some notices up on their job board (they all have one) saying jobs are going.

    3. I remember my professional encounters with a big 3 Ivy grad with similar “This must have been one of the worst students in recent memory” and “His parents and grandparents must have donated a crapload of cash.”

      Clipped out the middle:

      I remember my professional encounters with a big 3 Ivy grad with similar GPA and thinking “This must have been one of the worst students in recent memory” and “His parents and grandparents must have donated a crapload of cash.”

      There. That makes more sense. Maybe.

    1. Why did you think it was rigorous?

      I’d say the rigorous part of the psychology major is now found in Neuroscience and Biochemistry. The replication crisis may play a role.

      There’s a trade off between money and “meaning.” See: https://www.payscale.com/college-salary-report/majors-that-pay-you-back/bachelors?orderBy=percentHighMeaning&ascending=false

      Education majors make very little money, but are convinced they are making a difference.

      It’s fun to poke at the tables by major. Straight philosophy majors have respectable mid-career earnings, but are much less likely than teachers to say that their work makes the world a better place.

      The exercise physiology and physical education majors make more money than elementary and middle school teachers, and feel that they are making the world a better place.

      Philosophy majors make more money at mid career, but are much less likely to think that they make the world a better place.

      1. “Philosophy majors make more money at mid career, but are much less likely to think that they make the world a better place.” Philosophy majors have probably spent a lot more time thinking about what counts as “making the world a better place” than students from other majors. I was colleagues with a bunch of philosophers and they are a self-critical and rigorous bunch. Like ’em or don’t, but they are constitutionally unable to lie to themselves or others about the value of what they or anyone else does.

    2. Psychology is one of those majors that can skew in different directions, from being basically a “communications” major to be a math heavy brain modelling major. Whether it’s labelled “neuroscience” or not probably doesn’t make much of a difference. Neuroscience has become a new hot major — the first undergraduate programs were developed in the early 90’s, so it is a young major. In some schools it is the hot major for pre-meds, and, is competitive.

      Biochemistry is an old major. Now — at some point, it was probably a new major, designed by either biology or chemistry departments, which in turn might have influenced whether it was skewed to chemistry or biology. The modern, semi-equivalent major is MCB, Molecular and Cell Biology.

      In my knowledge of a major R1, the rigor of the major depends a lot on whether it is a competitive major or not, and how eagerly students want to access it. If some majors are competitive, the school has to have majors for the kids who don’t make it into the competitive major, and those majors will be easier, because they have to accommodate everyone. But, an individual student could be in a major that doesn’t demand rigor (i.e. difficulty) and still get a rigorous degree by doing more than the minimum.

    3. Psychology must vary a lot if your impression was that it was rigorous. Back in the 90s, I doubled majored in Computer Science and Linguistics. The latter was clearly easier than the former; partly because individual classes had a slightly lighter (ca. 5-10%) mean workload, but mainly because the Linguistics department had reduced their major requirements to attract majors. (30 hours of upper-division classes, reduced to 24 hours for students who were double majoring — no such reduction applied to CS.)

      One semester I had a Linguistics class that for some bizarre reason had been cross-listed so promiscuously that it attracted a majority of Psychology majors. I’ve never forgotten their whining about the workload, as apparently 40-60 pages per class were a intolerable burden compared to their usual classes. I really liked the instructor, and winced when I imagined the contents of the student reviews that semester.

    4. I keep hearing bad things about a psychology degree. Why? I thought it was very rigorous.

      FWIW, the people at the rigorous SLAC I went to who couldn’t quite keep up but still wanted a degree majored in Psychology or Economics. The Econ-minded kids who wanted a real education majored in Math/Econ. I don’t know if this has changed since then, but I am willing to believe it hasn’t.

    5. The major with the easiest number of credits (math) at my undergraduate school was almost certainly the hardest major (the faculty thought the math students should have time to contemplate great questions of the universe). I wonder if that’s still true or if the program has had to deal with an influx of data scientists.

      I do think there’s a lot of variability in how “hard” majors are. I wonder if there are some bottom lines we could develop. I think majors that require a lot of math are harder for a lot of people (though not everyone). Some sciency majors require a lot of math, some less so (and psychology is an example of one that could require a lot of math, but doesn’t have to. the one employed psych major i know well is also basically a statistician). In the humanities end, is it the amount of reading — and writing? In biology, it is content (how much, how deep) and how much one is tested.

      I tend not to think of people as incapable of learning a particular set of material (but, I have probably spent my time around a lot of people who are conventionally academically smart).

  18. I find it peculiar that any discussion of academics on the internet ends up obsessed with the tippy-top students at Harvard. You’d think we were a nation the size of Iceland.

    The university sector, as a whole, educates millions of students, not just the top 82 students in the “hardest” majors. (Whatever they may be, this year.)

    The drop in liberal arts enrollments might also trace back to colleges changing their treatment of AP and community college credits. I have the impression that many colleges have stopped allowing students to place out of intro STEM classes due to AP courses. Whereas, the AP credits may still allow students to place out of freshman English and other introductory courses.

    In some way, the time spent on exploration of courses outside the major has been cut short. Students don’t have to take English or History courses, so they assume those courses are just like their high school classes. In those high school classes, according to this “Forbes” contributor (a retired English teacher), students may be reading excerpts, not entire books: https://www.forbes.com/sites/petergreene/2018/11/09/common-core-testing-and-the-fracturing-of-literature/?fbclid=IwAR3fCmOe2Be-AvA6ql35WncTC3LzfCpg1YnyC8BlSxdqCs4H1QFQQdd2Y7w#6854b53513f1

    It is increasingly possible for students to graduate from high school without ever having read an entire novel, an entire play. Their knowledge of the body of literature is Cliff’s Notes deep, and they may never develop the mental muscles to work their way through a long, meaty piece of literature. Their experience of literature has been fractured and shrunk into pieces small enough to fit on a screen. Their experience of what “reading” is has been shrunk as well, leaving them with the idea that reading is about ploughing through a short, disjointed piece of a piece of writing in order to correctly guess the answers about it that someone else believes are correct (based on the assumption that there is only one correct reading of each passage).

    I think it would be very hard to transition from reading short excerpts to reading entire novels and epic poems. Political Science, Law, History, English, Anthropology, Humanities (whatever that may be in practice)–all of those topics, when treated seriously, require students to read complex, lengthy texts on their own.

    1. Wow, that was distressing.

      I’m afraid that college really isn’t the place to start reading big fat 19th century books if you’ve never read big fat 19th century books before.

      1. Honestly, I read pretty widely and voraciously all through high school and I have very limited patience for poetry.

      2. MH, I get that, and poetry is my least favorite of the literary arts, but have you tried any Stephen Crane?

        Poem 1:
        I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
        Round and round they sped.
        I was disturbed at this;
        I accosted the man.
        “It is futile,” I said,
        “You can never —”

        “You lie,” he cried,
        And ran on.

        Poem 2:
        A man said to the universe:
        “Sir I exist!”
        “However,” replied the universe,
        “The fact has not created in me
        A sense of obligation.”

        Love him.

        Also, my favorite CP Cavafy poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51295/the-city-56d22eef2f768

      3. ‘”I am”… I said
        To no one there
        And no one heard at all
        Not even the chair
        “I am”… I cried
        “I am”… said I
        And I am lost and I can’t
        Even say why
        Leavin’ me lonely still.’

      4. I like poetry, but I’ve had a lot of exposure and training. (That sounds dopey, but you really do need training to understand poetry.)

        I had a really good initial experience in AP English, where we worked with the book Sound and Sense.

        I’ve also did a fair amount of Russian poetry in college and grad school.

      5. Those don’t seem like bad questions to help high school students get an initial purchase on a moderately difficult poem.

        Poetry is pretty much the only imaginative literature I read. De gustibus non est disputandum.

      6. I read that book, “Sound and Sense.” I say to myself often, “True ease in writing comes from art, not chance.” You can substitute lots of other words for “writing.”

    1. I suspect that when Tyler Cowen reads history he reads middlebrow works, often by non-academics, and that when he reads economics he reads articles in the Journal of Political Economy, so his perspective on the two disciplines is skewed. That said, it probably is true that academic historians align to the left of academic economists, but that is an aspect of a broader phenomenon, that the more math there is in a field, the more conservative it is. I don’t know why that is.

  19. I don’t think math or physics are very conservative now. Are they more conservative than molecular biology? I suspect that fields skew more conservative when there is more money in them (petroleum engineering v marine biology) though one of the tricks that the kids don’t always realize is that you start out as a marine bio major but end up managing fish catches.

    1. “[F]ields skew more conservative when there is more money in them.”–That is certainly a plausible alternative explanation. I guess we could try to run a multivariate regression analysis, but I don’t have the energy required to remember how to do that. Under either explanation, economics skews right of history, but not because one studies contingencies and the other studies deterministic phenomena.

      1. I’m confused. Who is studying deterministic phenomena?

        Anyway, I can assure you that the people who do multivariate regression for a living skew leftish.

      2. There are quite a few people in financial services who do regression analyses for a living–my daughter sits at a workbench full of them–and they don’t necessarily skew left.

      3. Just the ones who can remember how to calculate the confidence intervals correctly when the errors are correlated?

      4. I’m pretty sure that the people who calculate correlation coefficients on Wall Street are at least as good as the ones who do it in the pages of the American Sociological Review. Of course, one might argue that the mistakes the former group makes are much more consequential than those of the latter group. That is why they get paid more.

  20. Well if you want to write a story on a place where the liberal arts are not dead, hit me up. English is still our number 1 major. It’s probably twice the size of the next largest.

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