Monday, April 07, 2008

Philosophy is booming!?

The New York Times reports this week that the number of philosophy majors at Rutgers is up.  The article implies that this is part of a broader trend towards resurgence of the importance of the liberal arts. (The NYT does like to report anomalies as if they are part of a larger trend!)

It would be nice to see, if true, that students are realizing that an "unpractical" major like philosophy is worthwhile.  Does anyone know if that is true here at UWO?

Can LERT be part of a movemnt that will convince students of the value of philosophy?  Is a broader trend on the horizon that will emphasize core skills and exploration in college, rather than mundane job training?


chuck d said...

Certainly true among my friends, though I always thought we were an odd bunch anyway.

I guess I'm not surprised. Maybe students have decided that if college isn't going to be a good return on their financial investment, they might as well study something interesting.

Mike Briley said...

I can only supply anecdotal evidence that this is not the case locally. We recently completed a survey of Wisconsin high school physics teachers regarding what areas their students most wanted to focus on in college. The response was overwhelmingly engineering with an occasional biophysics. No astronomy, no particle physics, no condensed matter, only "engineering because that's where the high paying jobs are" (though they've probably not thought about teaching in a business college). While there's clearly a difference between choosing astronomy over philosophy or english, the emphasis on the "practical" majors is alive and well.

Bill Wresch said...

Folks, if you want hard data on student majors, it is available at NCES.GOV The National Center for Education Statistics has tracked the majors students graduate with since 1970.

Here are some changes since 1985 -
Total graduates - up 50%
ethnic studies - up 160%
performing arts - up 123%
psychology - up 116%
liberal arts - up 110%
philosophy - up 87%
biology - up 85%
comm/journalism - up 77%
history - up 72%
English - up 61%

Business - up 34% (less than the 50% general growth)
Computer science - up 12%
math - down 9%
physics - down 9%
engineering - down 14%

Now seems to be a good time to push LERT since that sems to be what students want anyway. What they don't want is any major that requires calculus. Good thing we aren't trying to encourage those majors.

Lake Winneblogo said...


Thanks for the statistics. They cast the whole discussion about LERT in a different light.

If students are already gravitating to the liberal arts, why are we so concerned about convincing them of the relevance of such disciplines?

Does it shift the question to one about how we convince students to take their classes seriously--ie are students majoring in liberal arts just because they can get through with less work?

Calculus is a great example--it takes work to figure it out--thus students avoid it like the plague. . . .

Mike Briley said...

No offense to Bill, but percentage changes are not necessarily usefull here. Let me ask you - which would you notice more on campus, a 200% increase in the number of physics majors or a 50% increase in biology majors? Hint - there are way many more biology majors to begin with.

Such is the tryany of small numbers where small shifts are big changes in percentages. I would expect anyone used to seeing numerical data to have caught this. A more useful number might be the change in the fraction of the total number of students on campus in a given major. Of course that's probably hard to get.

And this isn't to say LERT is bad - I'm very much behind it (and hope it leads to a more serrious discussion of gen. ed.).

Bill Wresch said...

Mike, I would urge you to go to the site for yourself and see how you interpret their data. Forgetting percentages, or change or any small numbers, the second largest major in America is socialscience/history. It has a pretty big number (161,000 graduates in 06). As for percentages of total majors, that is easily computed at their site.

Draw you own conclusions. When I see the numbers I see large -- and growing -- numbers of students majoring in liberal arts majors.

Mike Briley said...

Hey Bill,

Thanks for urging me to take a look. The numbers there are fascinating and I clearly had some misconceptions.

Of course I can't help but notice the increase alone in the number of business students from 94-95 is about equal to the total number of computer & information sciences degrees in 04-05!

But for me, the real surprise is the rather static numbers in biology/biomedical and health professions. I was under the impression those were rapidly growing areas.

I'm going to go back and look at some of the other numbers now - this is wonderful stuff. I would encourage anyone who cares about such things to go have a look (although it is, not