President Barack Obama, perhaps one of the greatest BS-ers of all time, recently divulged where he fined-tuned his skills: college.

The Washington Free Beacon reports that during a Q&A hosted by Tumblr on Tuesday, one user asked Obama how America could “promote growth in STEM fields without putting humanities on the back burner.”

“First of all,” Obama began, “I want to say, I was a humanities major. So I majored in political science and minored in English.”

But according to Obama, those majors blossomed from a desire to slack off during high school. “I actually loved math and science until I got into high school,” he reminisced, “and then I misspent those years. And the thing about the humanities was, you could kind of talk your way through classes, which you couldn’t do in math and science, right?”

Right you are, Mr. President. Thank you for that brief moment of honesty. It’s so rare coming from you nowadays.

Watch the video:

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The humanities are facing curious trends these days. While the percentage of students majoring in a humanities field has barely budged in the past two decades, other fields considered solid for high earnings, such as business, haven’t fared much better. The sciences appear to be leaving others in the dust.

The murkiness of some data, and its variation among private and public institutions, also provides ammunition to academics with different views on the state of the humanities.

American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) data from 1987 through 2010, part of its Humanities Indicators project, show the humanities hovering around 12 percent of majors for most of the 1990s and 2000s. Business and marketing have stayed around 21 percent in the late 2000s, falling from 24 percent in the late 1980s but rebounding from 19-20 percent in the late 1990s, while engineering – at 11 percent in 1987 – hasn’t topped 7 percent since 2007.

“All sciences” together – behavioral and social sciences, health and medical sciences, life sciences and physical sciences – have steadily grown, according to AAAS data. Starting at 25.9 percent in 1987, they cracked 30 percent for the first time in 2009.

Scott Saul, an English professor at the University of California-Berkeley, wrote in The New York Times last year that the declining-humanities narrative is a “half-truth.” The trend is most pronounced in “prestigious private universities” such as Cornell, Yale and Harvard, where English and history majors have plummeted, he said.

Fewer students have been declaring majors such as writing or Greek because they have become aware of just how hard it is to find a job, says William Chace, the former president of Emory University. He is a professor at Stanford University and author of One Hundred Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way, published in 2006.

Writing in The American Scholar in 2009, Chace said that foreign-language majors dropped from 2.5 percent in the 1970-71 school year to 1.3 percent in 2003-04, as one example of the humanities’ decline.

Chace said schools’ pursuit of money, such as federal grants, has led them to hire “necessary non-faculty employees” such as development officers. He quoted historian Lynn Hunt of the University of California-Los Angeles, who said “The university staff as a whole is getting bigger, but the relative presence of faculty, secretaries, and janitors is actually declining.”

Humanities faculty have taken a hit because they “bring in almost no outside income,” unlike economists, computer scientists and “almost everyone in the medical sciences,” Chace wrote in The American Scholar. They are seen as “consuming money in salaries, pensions, and operating needs,” which is all “institutional,” he said.

It can be hard to tell the broader trends facing the humanities. AAAS said that faculty growth in the humanities (50.7 percent) actually outpaced U.S. postsecondary enrollment growth (40 percent) from 1999 through 2012. But U.S. Department of Education figures that show part-time instructional faculty outnumbered full-time faculty as of 2011 “do not differentiate among the academic fields,” AAAS said.

Individual institutions don’t necessarily make it easy to tell how the humanities fare there, either. Stanford’s undergraduate profile says that 30 percent of incoming students declare a major in “humanities and sciences” while more than 50 percent are undeclared.

Private schools may feel the pinch more acutely, unable to keep classes with lower attendance.

Point Loma Nazarene University, with an undergraduate enrollment around 2,600 and a cap of 750 on its incoming class, plans to phase out five majors by the 2017 school year, which together account for 54 students, according to a campus-wide email from provost Kerry Fulcher in April. Three of those – theater, Romance languages and philosophy/theology – are humanities.

Fulcher told The College Fix those three together only included 18 students, with philosophy/theology majors in particular dropping 70 percent in the past six years. Romance languages, meanwhile, were already scheduled for a phase-out two years ago when French was proposed, and the Spanish major continues as well, Fulcher said.

College Fix contributor Samantha Watkins is a student at Point Loma Nazarene University.

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IMAGE: Mohammad Jangda/Flickr

So this made the rounds on social media this weekend. We have no idea who this lady is, but a picture, as they say, is worth 1,000 words. And in this case, 1,000 plus a few more, thanks to her nifty poster.

(h/t: Revolutionary Communications)



Thomas K. Lindsay of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation writes:

For decades, a number of academics, Allan Bloom notably among them, have decried the 50-year dismantling of a required, common-core curriculum in the humanities, arguing that what makes higher education genuinely higher is its pursuit of two objectives that transcend job training. The first is civic education, which is indispensable because no nation can expect to be, in Jefferson’s words, “both ignorant and free.” The citizenry’s capacity for self-government is not a gift; it must relearned to be re-earned by every generation, which requires serious study of the moral, political, and philosophic foundations of our democratic republic.

Universities abdicated this crucial role 50 years ago. Few colleges require even one course in American government. The Department of Education finds only one-third of undergraduates today ever complete such a course. This is more than indifference; it is aversion. Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American colleges and Universities, finds “not just a neglect of but a resistance to college-level study of United States democratic principles.”

…Students learn the new orthodoxy quickly. Fearing classroom humiliation, they keep any reservations to themselves, instead regurgitating on their exams their force-fed lessons. As a result, they learn little. The landmark national study, Academically Adrift, finds 36 percent of students show little to no increase in fundamental academic skills—critical thinking, complex reasoning, and clear writing—after four years in college. Their natural desire to know gives way to repeating whatever is required for a good grade.

And what good grades they get! Under the new student-teacher compact, professors award more A’s than ever in exchange for students’ acquiescence in the transformation of classrooms into ideological training camps. Fifty years ago, 15 percent of all college grades given were A’s. Today, an A is the most common grade (43 percent), despite the fact that, during the same period, average student study-time has fallen from 24 to 14 hours a week…

Read the full article at Real Clear Policy.

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University of Texas journalism Professor Robert Jensen was brutally honest about the nature of social science and humanities courses his peers teach across the country in his latest opinion piece, and he wants fellow university-level educators to come clean, too.

Saying “good teaching is living your life honestly in front of students,” something he learned from his late mentor, Jensen said that means “a rejection of the illusory neutrality that some professors claim. From the framing of a course, to the choice of topics for inclusion on the syllabus, to the selection of readings, to the particular way we talk about ideas—teaching in the social sciences and humanities is political, through and through.”

Jensen went on to claim he’s not talking about partisan advocacy of a particular politician, party, or program, offering some academic doublespeak: “Political, in this sense, (means to) assess where real power lies, analyze how that power operates in any given society, and acknowledge the effect of that power on what counts as knowledge.”

Sure, whatever.

At any rate, Jensen goes on to call for academic honestly all around, saying students deserve it:

Every professor’s “politics” in this sense has considerable influence on his/her teaching, and I believe it is my obligation to make clear to students the political judgments behind my decisions. The objective is not to strong-arm students into agreement, but to explain those choices and defend them when challenged by students. At the end of a successful semester, students should be able to identify my assumptions, critique them, and be clearer about their own.

Jensen claims offering students some rabid rhetoric is what they want and expect, anyway:

The first course I taught in the university-wide program called First-Year Seminars, “The Ethics and Politics of Everyday Life,” was straight out of Koplin: I had students read five books that touched on the political, economic, and ecological implications of our choices in our daily lives. Every time I worried that I would be pushing students too far, Jim would tell me that the students were hungry for honest, jargon-free radical talk, and he was right.

Jim Koplin was a former professor, co-founder of the Center for Nonviolence, and a community organizer dedicated to social justice and ecological sustainability. Koplin died in mid-December at age 79, and Jensen wrote his piece on intellectual honesty in honor of Koplin and their friendship.

Jensen’s piece appeared on Koplin’s website as well as the New Left Project website, described as “dedicated to producing high quality comment and analysis on issues of concern to the political left.”

Whatever you think of Jensen (remember he’s the one who recently described Thanksgiving as a “white supremacist holiday”) it’s nice to see he’s willing to call a spade a spade.

Click here to read Jensen’s entire piece.

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My colleague Danny Crichton has an excellent article in the Stanford Review print edition (the first part of a three-part series, which you can find here) tracing the historical development and decline of the humanities in American universities (and Stanford in particular). The emphasis, unfortunately, is on “decline.” And Danny isn’t the only one worrying: recent cutbacks at State University of New York (SUNY) campuses which forced the closure of several language and humanities departments ignited a short-lived firestorm of agonized rhetoric about the fate of the humanities (here and here, for example).

To public universities across the nation, under pressure from drastic reductions in state education budgets, the humanities appear to be a field ripe for cost-cutting. And even private universities aren’t pushing the humanities like they used to; as Danny notes, federal dollars for the humanities are quite scarce, especially compared to the abundant outflow of public money for research in the natural and social sciences.

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