Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Major choices

William Chace laments the decline in the "number" of students studying the humanities in this article, then goes on to diagnose why he believes it occurred. I disagree with him in a lot of places (although not all - he does recognize that the rise of the humanities was a 20th-century trend rather than the state of affairs since time immemorial). Most importantly, the "trend" he analyzes isn't a trend at all.

Let's begin with the statistics he leads with. He reports the percentage of students in various majors, but reasons, "The number of young men and women majoring in English has dropped dramatically" (emphasis added). That's only true if the overall number of students remained the same - but it hasn't.

You can look up enrollment statistics in the Digest of Educational Statistics. The total fall enrollment in degree-granting institutions for 2007 was 18,248,128. In 1967, it was 6,911,748. In other words, the number of students tripled.

If, according to his statistics (he doesn't cite the source), 7.6 percent of students were English majors 40 years ago, that equals 269,558 English majors. If today 3.9 percent of students are English majors, that's 711,677 English majors - a net increase of 442,119. These numbers, by the way, are for all students, including those in two-year institutions, which tend to be more vocationally focused. If we limit it to four-year colleges, the numbers are 5,398,986 for 1967 and 11,630,198 for 2007. That's 210,560 English majors growing to 453,578 in forty years. To be perfectly clear: The number of English majors at four-year institutions has more than doubled. The percentages in the other humanities disciplines he cites tell similar stories. Foreign languages and literature grew by 16,218; philosophy and religion by 32,831; history by 245,619.

Now if one wishes to lament that this probably means a decline in the relative power or growth of English departments, one would have a fair argument. But this is not the argument Chace makes.

Am I being picky? Maybe. But I expect an English professor to understand the importance of word choice.

The increase in enrollment also points out another major factor in the changing rate of majoring in humanities - the link between socio-economic status and major choice. Most of the increase in enrollment comes from students of lower SES whose parents didn't attend college. Davies and Guppy found in one of the first relevant studies a decade ago that "working-class students who have reached college are more likely to view their undergraduate education instrumentally as a route to upward mobility, and are more likely to enroll in lucrative fields that are of a relatively technical nature, such as engineering or business." Most of Chace's arguments are about English departments themselves; any major trend is due to seeing overworked, underpaid TAs and being turned off by the latest trends in scholarship. But major choice is in many ways more about the student and about socially stratified perceptions of what is an appropriate major than about the lived reality of the discipline.

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