DePauw sees a decline in Humanities Majors

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Although many students claim DePauw University is “in a bubble,” it appears even a school in rural Indiana follows national trends, specifically the decreasing numbers of students majoring in the humanities.

The humanities include English, history, classics, and philosophy. According to study completed by American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the number of bachelor degrees in humanities decreased by 8.7 percent between 2012 and 2014. The same study found that out  all of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2014 only 6.7 percent were in the core humanities, greatly reduced from 17.2 percent in 1967.

The affected departments as well the Administration are working to combat this decrease, because of the large role humanities play in the liberal arts experience.

Out of the 45 majors DePauw offers, 50 percent of students major in either biology, computer science, communication, economics, and English. Out of those five majors, English is the only discipline that is a part of the humanities.

Harry Brown, chair of the English department, thinks student may not be interested in pursuing the humanities because it is perceived as less financially lucrative.

“I think a lot of it’s owed to the cultural misperception of the non utility of the humanities in the 21st Century,” Brown said. “I do think it’s a misperception because if you look at our alumni or you talk to employers, especially in fields that are changing rapidly like business, they’re constantly in demand for people who can communicate, work in ambiguous situations, work in text and multimedia, and who can think flexibly and think critically.”

In addition, DePauw’s current core curriculum may also be the cause for less students choosing to major in the humanities because it combines arts and humanities courses into
one distribution area. Students can avoid taking a humanities courses throughout their four years, but still fulfill the requirement by taking two courses in the arts.

“What we’re finding with the graduation requirements are that students are taking fewer 100 level humanities courses. In other words, you can graduate from DePauw without ever taking philosophy, art history, English, history,” said Anne Harris, vice president for academic affairs and a former professor of art history.

In 2012, following the implementation of the current core curriculum allowing arts course to be substituted for humanities, humanities numbers started dropping.

“After the new graduation requirements were put into effect, we saw a plummeting demand in our classes and with the major,” said Marcia McKelligan, professor and chair of the philosophy department. “Essentially you’ve gone from taking 5 ½ classes in arts and humanities to two.”

It is normal for universities to review their graduation requirements from time to time, and according to Harris, it appears that DePauw is about to do the same.

“I think we’re on the cusp of doing exactly that here, which is to kind of examine what is it that is specific to the arts and to the humanities that we want every DePauw student to experience,” Harris said.

Additionally, Harris reported that these talks to separately define the arts and humanities so that the two will not be lumped together under the same requirement may happen as soon as next semester through a curriculum committee and faculty input.

The department chairs for these majors are also making changes to increase student interest, mainly through increasing the number of introductory courses and the topics.

“We have a variety of ways for students to enter the major. I think we’re different from a lot of departments in that way,” said David Gellman, professor and chair of the history department. “You can enter the major through a First-Year Seminar, we have lots of entry-level survey classes. Then we also–this is something we’ve done in the past few years–offer some topical historical encounters classes.”

Similar changes are being made to the English and philosophy departments.

“We don’t want students to see us as a disadvantage, so we’ve revised our curriculum. It used to be that we only had two 100 level courses in literature and one in writing, so we’ve opened the gates a little wider to try and attract non-majors and undeclared students to the department,”  Brown said. “We call them Reading Literature. We’ve designed these courses specifically with interdisciplinary focus.”

The philosophy department has also attempted to highlight the success of its students. “We also have sheets where we publicize how well students do on the GMAT, on the LSAT, and the GRE, so that people understand that there are concrete benefits,” McKelligan said.

Harris hopes these eventual changes to the curriculum will help students gravitate more towards humanities courses, but in the meantime she hopes that they see the benefit of one of the core experiences of a liberal arts, a term from the Middle Ages that means “little race.”

“So the idea is that you’re running a little race, which is your four years in college, in preparation for the big race, which is the rest of your life,” Harris said, “at DePauw, a small liberal arts college, that curriculum, that little race, teaches you four interpretative frameworks to look at every complex problem in the world.”