Strictly in the department of anecdotes-don’t-make-data and a single year doesn’t make a trend, there’s been a slight acceleration in movement in enrollments this year at Swarthmore towards the sciences, particularly chemistry and biology.
Reading enrollments anywhere is hard, even over the longer term. There are a lot of variables that shape enrollments in any particular course. For example, the time that a course is scheduled for an early morning slot will inevitably have lower enrollments than it would if it were taught at another time.
Enrollments are also one of the most sensitive subjects in conversations between faculty. Attempting to compare enrollments for individual professors almost invariably leads to hurt feelings, not the least because there are some very granular and significant disparities in workloads that may be caught up in that comparison.
So with all those cautions in mind, a hesitant suggestion that if both long-term and short-term enrollment trends towards the sciences and towards more tangibly applied disciplines like economics have been observed at most liberal arts colleges, it may be time for those kinds of institutions to really have a very open heads-on confrontation with the implications of that trend.
I do not think that trend means that every subject which is not pre-law or pre-medicine needs to become a kind of remnant curriculum designed to help tomorrow’s lawyers, doctors and bureaucrats seem a bit more sparkling in cocktail party conversations. I do think it means that more of the curriculum needs to give a tangible and concrete sense of what applications it might have in life and work. Critical thinking, ethical intelligence, informed citizenship: those are nice but vague. They’re not enough. If some of those trends are real and general across institutions, they are not a sign that most students just plain love the sciences or hard social sciences and scorn everything else. They’re a sign that some disciplines do a better job at connecting intellectual knowledge, concrete skills with flexible utility, and a long-term narrative vision of what you do with a major in that subject later on.
Most of the long-term careers and life outcomes that humanistic disciplines cite as flowing from study within their precincts are in the throes of serious long-term structural transformations within the global economy. Yes, it’s still clear that tomorrow’s economy will require advanced education and that it will require flexibility and adaptability (and thus, “critical thinking”). But the security blankets provided to humanistic faculty trying to envision the careers of their students by journalism, publishing, advertising, translation, media production, civil service and so on are being stripped away at a steady rate. Sometimes they’re being replaced by other tangible professions and niches which many of us do not teach very well or at all (such as digital media production). Sometimes it’s hard to see what, if anything, will replace some of those jobs or niches.
Thinking about applications doesn’t have to involve a radical change in what you teach, I think. It’s just a shift in emphasis that leads to a slightly different selection of reading materials (more efforts to on materials which go outside narrowly specialized scholarship, or efforts to weigh the value of specialized scholarship against general-purpose syntheses). Or to more work with producing content in a wider range of ways (writing, digital media, and so on). Or more work on making skills like research methods transferrable outside the context of a specialized topic. To some extent, in the past, this is the kind of labor that faculty in many disciplines have left entirely up to students, to connect the dots of their studies and discover on their own possible applications for them. Maybe it’s time to own more of that work ourselves.
However, a curriculum that strives for more tangible connections to the world beyond its institution also is going to need a redistribution of teaching resources in the longer haul, both in terms of subject matter and curricular structure. I’ve been fretting about this kind of shift for a while. You can accomplish some it within established courses, subjects and tenure-track lines with changes in pedagogical emphasis. You can recognize what you’re already doing that is hands-on or experiential and extend that across the institution. That’s what labs in the natural sciences are for, so just consider what labs in the humanities might look like.
However, I also think you need new concepts and structures. I’ve argued in the past that a college like Swarthmore might consider bringing professionals of various kinds in for a year (lawyers, doctors, civil servants, journalists, investment bankers, entrepreneurs, software engineers, architects) to teach a “practicum”. Not to teach a standard professional-school course, but a liberal-arts reflection on what work in those professions is like, what the tangible problems and issues are, and so on. It would be hard at first to find people who have the appropriate professional experience who would also be comfortable in front of a classroom of students in the mode of teaching preferred at an institution like Swarthmore, but I think over time we’d get the hang of it.
Another thought I’ve had recently is that we could use a quarter-long, half-credit series of courses on non-disciplinary technical skills that confer no certification. (Trying to make these actual certification programs, I agree, leads to serious transformations in institutional mission). Carpentry, plumbing, computer assembly and repair, agriculture, food preparation, and so on. The practicum I’ve described above is something we could plausibly accomplish through a single major donation, because it would only be funding a single position like our current Lang and Cornell professors. This shift, on the other hand, would take some serious repurposing of resources. For some of these tangible skills, there is faculty or staff expertise available, but the institution would have to decide quite programmatically to commit more resources to this kind of teaching and fewer resources to the teaching we already do. Arguably some of this kind of instruction could be had on the cheap by comparison to tenure-track faculty.
Now this is the kind of suggestion that I expect that almost all of my colleagues would smile politely upon hearing it while privately tagging me as “far loonier than I thought he was”. Quite reasonably, one could suggest that this is the sort of teaching that other kinds of institutions do better than we do, and that students looking for this kind of knowledge can get it later on in life, as needed. But I think this is the kind of knowledge that makes the liberal arts meaningful and that would give our graduates some far better visions of what to do next in life (here I completely agree with Matthew Crawford). I think you’d be better off being working for four years as a plumber who had a wide range of interesting knowledge and training and then going to graduate school than being an underpaid and underutilized white-collar worker in a struggling think tank or community non-profit frustrated by the dysfunctions of your organization and by the drone-like quality of the work you’re assigned to do. Better off not just financially but intellectually. So yeah, I’d just as soon snatch up the equivalent of 5 tenure-track positions and put that money into a “side curriculum” of this kind.
That’s a pretty radical shift in orientation, and I don’t expect it soon (or at all). But I do think the general problem of how to make what we do seem to have tangible payoffs is a challenge that liberal arts faculty can’t afford to completely subcontract out to admissions officers and career services advisors any longer.