• 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.


In Which I Consider Resorting to a T-Shirt Cannon

The humanities at community colleges.


May 8, 2016

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:

  • The number of associate’s degrees conferred in academic disciplines classified by the Humanities Indicators as being within the humanities rose from 2013 to 2014 (from 338,688 to 347,735; a large majority of the associate’s degrees counted as humanities were in “liberal arts” and “liberal studies”).[2] This continues a trend extending back to 1987. From that year to 2014, the number of degrees increased by an average of 4.3% per year, though growth in the most recent two years has been slower than average.

“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.  


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