• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Gen Ed and Humanities Majors

Explaining an apparent anomaly.

June 15, 2021

A few weeks ago, Chad Orzel opined on Twitter that just as colleges have science classes aimed at nonmajors, they should have humanities classes aimed at nonmajors. The idea was that many courses in humanities are taught at a level that assumes specialization, and that can turn off folks who aren’t planning to major in the subject. I remember thinking that the term we usually use for that is “general education,” or, at the more rejective colleges, “distribution requirements.”

Then this week, two stories crashed into each other on my feed, both about humanities courses at community colleges. The first, from Inside Higher Ed, notes that humanities enrollments at community colleges in the U.S. have been growing since the 1980s and that this is the only sector of higher education in which that’s true. The second, from WBUR Boston, notes that most people who attend community colleges wind up with higher salaries than those who don’t go to college. The only exception is men who major in the humanities.

And again, I thought, general education.

It’s easy to conflate general education and the humanities, although we shouldn’t. The humanities usually refer to languages, art, music, theater and various forms of creative expression. General education refers to a set of requirements that transcend individual majors; the idea behind them is that every college graduate, regardless of major, should have some familiarity with various ways of seeing and being in the world, and certain baseline skills. In pursuit of my poli sci degree, for instance, I took calculus, environmental chemistry, American literature and music appreciation. At my college, even students who major in business administration or engineering still have to take English composition. The theory there, with which I agree wholeheartedly, is that any college graduate should be able to communicate effectively in writing. They also have to take a few courses in the social sciences, to get some sense of the world beyond their family.

Most of our humanities courses are pretty accessible to nonmajors, simply because most of our students have no intention of being majors beyond the associate’s, even if that’s their major here. Although we do have some students who identify as future English majors or art majors, most who major in humanities do so to fulfill the general education requirements of four-year degrees. The degree is built to transfer.

That’s why I don’t lose much sleep about the not-great wage premium attached to a humanities major at this level. Humanities degrees at this level, especially outside a few specialty areas (like music technology), are intended for vertical transfer. They weren’t meant to stand on their own. By design, they’re meant to be the first two years of a four-year degree.

Seen in that light, it makes sense that the humanities would be doing relatively well in the community college sector. The economic squeeze that makes humanities majors seem risky at the four-year level makes vertical transfer more attractive -- because the tuition here is so much lower -- and that’s how you do vertical transfer.

As to the point about specialization, I recall a professor I had in college for a poli sci class lamenting that social sciences were almost too accessible to nonspecialists; nearly everybody came in thinking they already knew all about the subject, even if they didn’t. Much of the teaching involved unteaching first. I found that to be true when I started teaching, and it’s worse now; purveyors of ideology cloaked as information have become much more efficient, and true believers get moral support from all corners. Moving a student from “my side is right and the other side is wrong” to something more nuanced, or at least reasoned, is harder than introducing something entirely new. That’s a real challenge, very different from what one might find in a class on poetry or differential equations. In that context, general education matters even more, although it’s harder to provide.

So yes, at this level, humanities enrollments are doing well. But comparing that directly to humanities enrollments at the four-year level is mistaking gen eds for majors. And anyone who would like to see what a “humanities for nonmajors” class looks like is invited to drop by their local community college. We’d be happy to have you.


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