Sunday, May 08, 2016


In Which I Consider Resorting to a T-Shirt Cannon

Subtlety hasn’t worked.  I may need to resort to more drastic measures.  

Last year I wrote at some length about a report showing that the “death of the humanities” narrative is exactly wrong when applied to community colleges; recent statistics showed that humanities majors are the fastest-growing majors in the two-year sector.

Nobody noticed, except those of us who actually staff classes.

This year I’ll try again, perhaps more directly.  As an update to the report shows:

“This continues a trend extending back to 1987.”  It’s worth looking at the charts.  Even the social sciences -- my own academic home -- are finally gaining some ground, though admittedly from a more modest base.  

Okay, one might say, the charts are pretty good.  But why do they matter?

They matter because they fly in the face of so many assumptions people make about higher ed, both from within and from outside.

First, and at a basic level, they expose the assumptions behind the “death of the humanities” narrative.  To make a “death of the humanities” argument, you have to exclude the entire two-year sector.  Most of the folks who make that argument do exclude the two-year sector, but without acknowledgement and seemingly without thinking; it just doesn’t occur to them to look.  I’ve never seen a principled argument for making that move; it simply doesn’t occur to them that they’re making a move at all.  They are, and they should have to answer for it.

Second, they demonstrate that, as I’ve argued here serially, “transfer is workforce.”  Humanities majors at community colleges generally intend to transfer for four-year degrees and often beyond.  Many of the best-paying jobs require a bachelor’s degree or more.  Given the steadily-increasing cost gap between two-year and four-year schools, the financial argument for transfer is getting stronger, and students are responding rationally.  Politicians who look at “workforce” programs (that is, terminal associate’s or certificates) as “real” and transfer programs as “fuzzy” or “indulgent” miss the point.  There is a cold, hard rationality to doing a transfer degree first, and students know it.  STEM fields are great, but they aren’t the only option.

Third, graduate programs in the humanities need to take note.  Too often, they extrapolate from their own past -- 1970 is usually taken as the Golden Age, though statistically it was more of an outlier -- and assume some variation of the “beautiful loser” pose.  Meanwhile, their students need work, and humanities at community colleges are in their fourth decade of growth.  A few forward-looking types are starting to try to talk sense to graduate programs -- hat-tip here to Paula Krebs for the New England Cross-Sector Partnership, which I’ve taken as a template for the Brookdale-Princeton partnership -- but given how long these trends have been going on, the stage of development of these partnerships is embarrassingly early.  

The coalition of people predisposed to ignore this trend is broad and deep.  But that doesn’t make the trend any less true.  I’m thinking maybe it’s time to resort to more drastic measures -- parades, t-shirt cannons, skywriting.  The humanities are healthy and growing at community colleges.  And that’s a good thing.  Let’s acknowledge it, fund it, and train for it.   

When you write "STEM fields are great, but they aren’t the only option", you contribute to perpetuatiing the myth you complain about.

Every last one of the Engineering, Physics, Computer Science, and Chemistry majors that graduate from my CC show up in the "Humanities" graph in that report. We do not offer an "AA Engineering" degree because (a) there would be massive additional reaffirmation of accreditation work required and (b) none of the engineering classes articulate to the junior level 'you must be admitted to the major to take these' classes at the universities they attend. (It would be totally pointless for science majors like physics, where we produce two or three transfers every year.) Our engineering degrees are at the AS level, plus some certificates in skills like CAD or the Microsoft suite of certificates.

The "Liberal Arts" AA degree at my college is a STEM workforce degree.
Sorry DD, I take issue with your assumption that "liberal arts" equates to humanities. As I see it, liberal arts (in some places referred to as "the liberal arts and sciences") is a general degree that allows studies in board fields, including humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

Many of the students who show up in my BIO majors class are technically liberal arts majors. I tend to see this major among kids who think they want to pursue a BIO major or pre-med track at a four-year schools, but want to test the waters first in a way that won't derail them if they find they can't handle intro bio and chem.

It would be interesting to see if there's any data on what percent of AA Liberal Arts majors end up in each BA major after transfer.
Nope. My lived experience is that the humanities are dying at CCs too. Students are STEM, health science, telcomm in disguise. Students want "tech writing" over "writing about lit". They want workforce but can't get into the competitive programs and don't want to invest four-six years in college. Phil, Lit, and language classes are cancelled. Dig down into the data.
The College Dean was sharing the information in confession of science in telecom digital services of the most of students.

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