University News

Humanities falter, sciences see growth

The number of English and history concentrators has dropped off steeply in the last decade

Staff Writer
Monday, November 11, 2013

The number of students earning English degrees declined from 66 to 43 from the class of 2012 to the class of 2013, and the number receiving history degrees dropped from 141 in the class of 2004 to 62 last year, according to the Office of Institutional Research.

This decline in humanities concentrators is mirrored across departments — only four of the University’s 27 humanities departments have seen numbers of concentrators increase significantly more than 10 percent over the last decade. But while the number of humanities concentrators appears to be dropping off, eight of the 19 physical science departments and four of eight life and medical sciences departments have seen substantial gains, according to OIR data.


Financial and intellectual rewards

Though Brown classifies history as a social science, its long-term decline in concentrators — the largest drop of any department over the past 10 years — may stem from similar issues to those that have led to a decrease in humanities concentrators.

There is a “perception that history isn’t practical,” said Cynthia Brokaw, professor and chair of the Department of History, because “there is no obvious job that a person with a concentration in history does.”

Desire for a degree with an obvious financial reward may have pushed the relative growth of the sciences over the last 10 years. The numbers of students receiving degrees in applied mathematics, engineering, physics, biological sciences and economics have increased by over 50 percent over the last 10 years.

But “there is no pressure (at Brown) to model the humanities on the sciences,” said Jim Egan, professor of English. Such pressure exists at other universities, but Egan said he feels the Department of English is “fully supported” by the administration as part of the humanities.

Brokaw said the University recognizes the importance of history and that funding for the concentration has not been threatened by the decline in concentrators.

English concentrator Sienna Zeilinger ’15 said financial reward does not determine what she chooses to study as an undergraduate student. “I take my classes for what they give me now rather than what they’ll give me later,” she said.

Ted Burke ’14 said an English concentration teaches students to “cohere ideas and articulate them well,” adding that these skills have improved his work in classes in other departments. Skills he has learned as an English concentrator will prepare him for whatever job or academic program he pursues after graduation, Burke said.

Though the 2008 financial crisis has forced students to think more about employment after graduation, Brokaw said, “with a history degree you should have skills … that will serve you in a variety of fields.”

Students and professors alike highlighted the value of the humanities outside of building marketable skills. Zeilinger, who declared English after taking one class in the department, said she relishes “coming to class every day and being really excited to know what others (are) thinking.”

“English is about discussing and challenging each other,” Burke said.


Logistics and requirements

Aside from the question of the financial value of the humanities that has pervaded national discussion about the topic, Brown humanities departments face specific problems such as requirements, class size and the clarity of a program’s focuses.

Brokaw acknowledged the need to expand “gateway courses” that draw first-years and sophomores to the history department. This expansion has been difficult in the past, she said, because some courses have very specific content.

The English department recently underwent an overhaul and now requires concentrators to take two courses in each of three different time periods. Previously, the concentration required students to take any two courses from each of three time periods, with one of the two courses in each time period being an introductory course. The overhaul also eliminated several tracks within the concentration, leaving only literature and nonfiction writing tracks.

English professors realized the “structure of the requirements was pushing people away,” Egan said.

Introductory English courses were limited not only in topic but also in number, which made it difficult for some first-years and sophomores to try out English courses, perhaps reducing the number of potential concentrators.

“It’s harder to dive in and try (English courses),” Zeilinger said.

The English department also struggles to distinguish itself from similar concentrations such as comparative literature and literary arts. Literary arts, which gave out its first degrees in 2006, has since grown from 21 concentrators to 42 last year.

Literary arts has taken some concentrators away from English, Egan said, but “no one in the English department begrudges that.” He added that literary arts is distinct from English and it is “good that people have that outlet (of creative writing) if that’s what they want to focus on.”

It is “unclear to many people what the English concentration is and has to offer” compared to other literary concentrations, Burke said.

But the drop in student enthusiasm for the humanities may be overstated. In an article published on Inside Higher Ed, Professor of Africana Studies Matthew Pratt Guterl wrote the “humanities remain popular with students,” and the decrease in enrollment numbers can be partially attributed to a greater number of female students pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as well as the “rise of new interdisciplines that eat away at our notion” of the humanities.

“The crisis of the humanities is both real and hype,” Egan said, but it has allowed humanities scholars to rethink their approach and “connect literature and the world to (their) students.”


Reversing the trend

The English department has created a committee to address its decline in concentrators, and history professors have had department-wide discussions on the matter.

The history department held a retreat last year to confront the issue, Brokaw said. The product of the retreat was the creation of courses such as HIST 0150: “History of Capitalism,” which will be offered each semester and are intended to grab the interest of a large number of students. Next semester, as part of the program, the department will offer HIST 0150: “The Philosopher’s Stone: Alchemy from Antiquity to Harry Potter.”

History professors have also been in contact with Meiklejohn peer advisers to find out what courses have appealed to first-years and with professors from other universities to learn ways to improve the history program at Brown.

Egan, the head of the English department’s curricular overhaul committee, said professors identified problems with the department’s new requirements last spring and have reverted the requirements to what they were before the overhaul for the next two years.

The committee will use the next two years to look at other universities, talk to students, collect and analyze data and decide how to revise the requirements moving forward to mold a program that “engages with both the past and the changing … world we live in,” Egan said.

To resolve the problem of introductory classes that are limited in topic and number of students, the department will offer a greater number of classes without a cap. But there will be enough professors such that uncapped introductory courses will not be too large — the quality of future courses will be better than they already are, he said.

Egan said he hopes these changes will also address the concern that the English department is not distinct from similar concentrations.


A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Department of English now requires concentrators to take an introductory-level course in each of three different time periods. In fact, students may take any two courses in each of the three time periods. The Herald regrets the error.


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  1. This is the big dilemma facing universities, which grant life time tenure to its professional staff. How do you shift the number of teaching positions towards subjects/majors which are in high demand (comp sci, brain science, econ) and away from some of the humanities?……At some point if this trend away from the humanities continues, the major reserach universities will have to shift resources and teaching positions away from history, english, etc…..BDH has already reported that comp sci classes at Brown have very high enrollments and not enough teaching support…..this has to be addressed.

    • Yes. Another ingredient here has been an inadequate articulation of the role of classical, liberal arts education in contemporary society, History, English, and the other humanities disciplines can not assume their relevance by inheritance.

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