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Liberal arts colleges promise students a well-rounded education in core disciplines that will prepare them for a variety of careers and lifelong learning — not just a first job. Increasingly, though, even attending a liberal arts institution doesn’t inoculate students from anxieties about the job market that may push them toward the math and the sciences, at the expense of arts and humanities. 

“What liberal arts colleges historically have said to students is, ‘Do what you love, and the rest will take care of itself,'” said Sarah Bolton, president of the College of Wooster. Increasingly, though, that message isn’t resonating with students, who instead think they’ll be best served later on by taking as many quantitative courses as possible — including as electives, she said. So it’s statistics instead of theater, for example, or another science course over one in literature.

As a physicist, Bolton doesn’t object to more science — until it compromises a student’s overall experience. “I firmly believe that the sciences are part of the liberal arts, but I also believe that the arts are part of the liberal arts, as well,” she said.

Bolton said the challenge for colleges like hers going forward will be to encourage students to make the most of the curriculum based on what they want to do when they graduate, while not limiting themselves or sacrificing what they really want to study. Wooster is currently reviewing its curricular requirements to encourage students to do just that. It’s also gathering long-term data on enrollment and major choices. There’s already anecdotal evidence to suggest that some students are skimping on the arts and humanities courses they came to liberal arts institution to try out. 

At Wellesley College, that’s definitely the case. The college surveyed recent graduates and asked which of the 12 degree components they wished they’d taken more or less of. About half of respondents said they wouldn’t change anything. But about half said they would, with the most “wish I’d taken more” comments relating to the arts, languages and non-Western cultures. The most “wish I’d taken fewer” comments were about courses in math and the physical sciences. 

“I wouldn’t say it was students’ biggest regret, but when they looked at their academic programs, they wished they had done more arts and humanities,” said Ann Velenchik, dean of academic affairs at Wellesley and an associate professor of economics. 

Between 2008 and 2016, for example, there was a 14 percent decline in enrollments in the humanities and an 8 percent decline in enrollments in the social sciences. At the same time, there was a 29 percent increase in enrollments in math and the sciences, especially computer science and neuroscience. Interdisciplinary courses are also on the rise, with an 18 percent jump in enrollments.

In terms of majors, 27 percent of Wellesley graduates majored in the arts and humanities in 2008. In 2016, it was 23 percent. Social sciences, historically Wellesley’s most popular area, saw a smaller decline, from 44 percent 42 percent. Majors in math and the sciences jumped, meanwhile, from 18 percent to 23 percent. 

“There’s definitely been a movement from the humanities to the sciences,” Velenchik said. Yet she noted that enrollments in particular are more “balanced” than they used to be — meaning that they’re more evenly represented now across the arts and sciences.  

Is that good or bad? Velenchik was somewhat neutral, saying that at Wellesley, at least, students tend to “overfulfill” their distribution requirements, regardless of major. Those requirements include three courses in the humanities, three in the social sciences, three in math and the physical sciences, two years of a foreign language and a first-year writing course. 

William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life and current National Endowment for the Humanities-Hannah Arendt Center Visiting Distinguished Fellow at Bard College, was less neutral about national trends away from the humanities. 

“It's a terrible thing, and it bespeaks the destructive attitude that is ubiquitous in education today, which is that the sole purpose of education is to set you up for job and career and that you should therefore study something practical, understood in the narrowest terms,” he said.

Deresiewicz said he’s studied major — not enrollment — data at top-20 colleges and universities, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, and noticed an “enormous shift” toward economics, even more so at liberal arts colleges than at research institutions. In 1995, for example, English was the most popular major at 9 of the top 20 liberal arts colleges, compared to just one in 2013. Economics and the other social sciences — namely political science — surged from the most popular majors at four colleges to 13 over the same period.

Because liberal arts institutions usually don’t offer the kinds of “explicitly vocational majors that most schools do (communications, education, business — the last of which accounts for between a fifth and a quarter of all majors across the country), students at fancy schools tend to choose one of the next best things: biology, engineering, computer science, and for those not inclined to the sciences, economics,” Deresiewicz added via email.

What Can Be Done? 

Part of Bolton’s thinking is informed by having served as dean until recently at Williams College. That campus has seen a decline the number of majors in a few humanities and arts fields — namely studio art and art history. But that's been coupled with a sharp increase in the number of students who choose to double major (currently 42 percent of students), with at least one major in the sciences, technology, math or engineering (STEM), according to information from Williams. So even as the sciences have surged, the net impact on the humanities has been minimal. 

Beyond encouraging students to double-major, George Shuffleton, associate dean and professor of English at Carleton College, advised talking to students about what they want to learn. “We work really hard to dispel the notion” that students have to fine-tune their studies to particular career aspiration, he said. “Students  come to a place like Carleton because they really are committed to getting a liberal arts education, and sometimes it’s a question of reminding them that if they’d wanted to pursue a narrowly professional education, there are other places they could have gone to instead. The mission is reminding them why they made that choice in the first place.” 

Carleton has seen slight declines in some non-physical science fields within the last decade. English accounted for 9 percent of majors in 2006, for example, compared to 6 percent in 2016; social sciences and history shrank from 31 percent to 26 percent of majors over the same period. But surges in STEM fields were centralized, seen in just math and computer science (the latter was 2 percent of majors in 2006, and now it's about 10 percent). 

To that point, Shuffleton said there was probably a something a bit more nuanced going on than a much-lamented decline of the humanities: gender. At Carleton and nationwide, more women are enrolling in disciplines in which they've historically been underrepresented, he said. “In fields like math and computer science, we see that as a success.”

Velenchik, at Wellesley, said trends toward the sciences probably also reflect her institution’s efforts to enroll more first-generation students — many of whom have a different, perhaps more practical idea of what college is and should accomplish than do students whose parents and grandparents attended liberal arts institutions. 

Silvia L. López, David and Marian Adams Bryn-Jones Distinguished Teaching Professor of the Humanities and director of the Humanities Center at Carleton, said via email that numbers alone don’t do the conversation justice. “Our curriculum design requires students to learn a second language and ensures that the students take classes distributed in all areas of knowledge and artistic practice offered,” she said, while about 75 percent of students go abroad. “Carleton's liberal arts education is exactly that: an education. It can't be measured by the number of majors in the hard sciences, but must be understood through the transformative experiences that students have in and out of the classroom that teach them that a rich and full life can only be one if lived in an examined and generous way.”

It’s true that many liberal arts colleges have distribution requirements that ensure students are learning within a variety of disciplines, regardless of their majors. Some colleges have also layered thematic requirements on disciplinary requirements. Barnard College, for example, this year debuted new curriculum called “Foundations,” which promoted six “modes of thinking” — technologically and digitally; quantitatively and empirically; social difference; global inquiry; locally (New York); and historical perspective — in addition to requirements in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. (Computer science enrollments and majors are up significantly at Barnard.)

Extracurricular opportunities — typically plentiful on liberal arts campuses — only enrich those studies. Some campuses also have added courses, majors and programs that ensure students are studying the liberal arts even when they’re not taking courses within the traditional liberal arts disciplines.

Carol Quillen, president of Davidson College, said her campus has moved increasingly toward problem-centered learning in recent years, such as by adding programs like digital studies. The minor emphasizes digital creativity, culture and methodology through coursework in design, ethics, quantitative literacy and other elements of the liberal arts. Health and human values is another popular program. 

“These are the kinds of questions that are inspiring faculty and students, and our curriculum is becoming and less departmentally focused,” she said. “We’re thinking about a liberal arts curriculum that looks much more transdisciplinary and pulls courses and faculty members from across the disciplines together.”

Liberal arts colleges, with their typically small faculties, are uniquely suited for collaboration and being nimble to students’ needs and interests, Quillen said. She noted that a group of faculty members had responded to waning interest in a four-semester Western traditions humanities sequence by cutting the time commitment and adding a global focus, for example. 

Surely such updates will draw criticism from those who advocate for a traditional liberal arts core, and who blame any decline of the humanities on new, more critical approaches. But Quillen said she had no patience for arguments that change inevitably waters down the liberal arts, and suggested that the key to maintaining educational quality is rigor, not stasis. 

The notion that adding Zora Neale Hurston, for example, to a course in Western literature — which traditionally would have been dominated by white male authors — somehow means sacrificing rigor “is ridiculous,” she added. “Plus we live in a world where fields of inquiry are constantly expanding.”

Carleton isn’t the only college adding new programs. Williams, for instance, has added a concentration in public health and new majors in Arabic, environmental studies and statistics in the past decade.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities, which promotes liberal education, advocates inquiry-based, integrative learning and high-impact teaching practices over core curricula and stringent distribution requirements, “where students’ proficiencies are practiced and demonstrated across all learning experiences,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president. 

General education now also requires “signature work,” in which students “integrate and apply their learning to questions that matter, she said. “Signature work prepares students to grapple with complex, unscripted problems for which the answers are yet unknown and to use strategies of inquiry, analysis and collaboration to construct a course of action and take responsibility for the results.”

Over all, the association’s vision for ged ed “is grounded in guided preparation for students to identify and build capacity for addressing significant questions and challenges that matter to the student and to the broader society,” Pasquerella said. Disciplinary work “remains foundational, but students are provided with practice connecting their discipline with others, with the co-curriculum, and with the needs of society — in preparation for work, citizenship and life.”

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