Has the Sharp Decline in Philosophy Majors Hit Bottom? (guest post by Eric Schwitzgebel)

The following is a guest post by Eric Schwitzgebel (University of California, Riverside), on trends in the numbers of philosophy majors, following up on previous posts on the subject), with some interesting speculation at the end about possible causes. A version of it originally appeared at his blog, The Splintered Mind.

Has the Sharp Decline in Philosophy Majors Hit Bottom? (Plus Other Interesting NCES Data)
by Eric Schwitzgebel

1. Has the Sharp Decline in Philosophy Majors Hit Bottom?

Last year, drawing on the publicly available IPEDS database, I reported an alarmingly sharp decline in the number of recipients of Bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy in the U.S. since 2010—from 9,297 in 2010, or 0.58% of all graduates, to 7,507 in 2016, or 0.39% of all graduates. I found similar declines in History, English, and other language majors.

In the most recent year’s data (2016-2017), I’m encouraged to see no further decline either in the total number of Philosophy majors or in the percentage of graduates who choose the Philosophy major. To give you a sense of how striking this is, look at 2013-2017:

Bachelor’s Degrees in Philosophy in the U.S., by year:

2013: 9,439 (0.53% of all graduates)
2014: 8,837 (0.47%)
2015: 8,198 (0.43%)
2016: 7,507 (0.39%)
2017: 7,579 (0.39%)

[for methodological details see here]

After declining by about 600 majors per year from 2013 through 2016, 2017 shows a slight uptick. The 95% confidence interval around the 2017 number is 0.38% to 0.40%, so this flattening is not merely a chance deviation from the 0.05%/year downward trend since 2013.

2. English and History, However, Continue to Decline

In contrast with Philosophy, English and History are continuing to decline (though note that English and History still have many more majors overall).

Bachelor’s Degrees in English:

2013: 56,021 (3.0% of all graduates)
2014: 54,222 (2.8%)
2015: 49,540 (2.5%)
2016: 46,259 (2.3%)
2017: 44,686 (2.2%)

Bachelor’s Degrees in History:

2013: 37,583 (2.0% of all graduates)
2014: 34,193 (1.8%)
2015: 31,048 (1.6%)
2016: 28,229 (1.4%)
2017: 26,724 (1.3%)

Despite a 9% growth in total number of graduates across all majors, in the five years from 2013 to 2017, the number of graduates declined by 20% in English and by 29% in History, and is continuing to fall fast. (Maybe, if you squint at the data with an optimistic eye, the rate of decline is slowing.)

3. In Contrast, the Number of PhDs Hasn’t Declined Much

In contrast, the number of Philosophy, English, and History PhDs awarded has declined only slightly in that same five year period: from 475 to 438 in Philosophy, 1377 to 1347 in English, and 1003 to 945 in History. Consequently, the ratio of BAs to PhDs has declined considerably between 2013 and 2017. In English the ratio fell from 41 BAs per PhD in 2013 to 33 BAs per PhD in 2017. In History the ratio fell from 37 to 29, and in Philosophy it fell from 20 to 17.

Here’s a chart going back to 2010:

4. Conclusion

Majors can rise and decline substantially in popularity over the years. Continuing decline isn’t inevitable. I’m rooting for a turnaround.

I might be wrong, but I think and hope that the recently increasing visibility of philosophers in prominent public venues such as the New York Times has helped improve the educated public’s perception of the relevance and interest of philosophy. Let’s show the world the value of the humanities!

art: Michael Heizer, “City” (aerial photograph)

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