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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Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
2 years ago

First, thanks for crunching the numbers, and I hope you’re right that we have hit bottom!
Now any discussion of the cause of this phenomenon is going to be really conjectural, but I wonder if philosophy in pop culture doesn’t have something to do with this. I’ve had several students, who are more than usually engaged in the course material, mention either “The Good Place” or “Black Mirror” in connection with philosophy. The former explicitly focuses on a lot of philosophical themes and, while the latter isn’t so explicit about the philosophy, it pretty clearly deals with a lot of clearly philosophical questions. Pop culture and how we’re portrayed is important for these things. There’s pretty decent evidence that “Indiana Jones” and “Jurassic Park” encouraged more people to study archaeology and paleontology.
I’ve also had a fair number of students mention philosophy podcasts (“The Partially Examined” Life seems a particularly popular one) so I think those are likely good for us as a field.Report

wsle
wsle
2 years ago

I think it has something to do with the increasing cost of education, and not on cultural phenomena like movies or New York Times columns..

Total degrees has plateaued and is not in decline according to the link. Therefore, when we see Philosophy, English, and History degrees plummeting, it means those people are going somewhere. Seems reasonable to think they are going to fields with higher demand for workers and more earning potential. Report

Brian Weatherson
2 years ago

I’m a little sceptical about explanations of the phenomena in terms of pop culture. If history enrollments can go into free fall while Hamilton is the biggest thing on Broadway in decades, I don’t think pop culture can save a field.Report

Ariel
Ariel
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
2 years ago

the vast majority of undergraduate students in the country don’t know much about what’s on broadway. TV and films are much more accessible, popular, and indicative of pop cultural trendsReport

jj
jj
Reply to  Ariel
2 years ago

The Good Place?Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  jj
2 years ago

https://www.chronicle.com/article/Meet-the-Philosophers-Who-Give/242462

Beyond the philosophy angle, it’s a well-made, implausibly good show. (Implausibly, because of the tired cliches that usually infest the sitcom format and the crappy ways that primetime network shows get made). Report

dmf
dmf
Reply to  Ariel
2 years ago

but they’re not explicitly about philosophy by and large and “philosophical” themes is not what the kids are on about in their discussions of them onlineReport

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Ariel
2 years ago

I mean, the kids may not have gone to midtown Manhattan to see the movie, but we can be pretty sure lots of them heard it.

The soundtrack album was #3 on Billboard’s album charts, #1 on it’s “Internet Album” charts, and #1 on it’s Rap Album charts. There are Hamilton memes appearing on Twitter all the time, and most of the people making them didn’t see the show. When Lin-Manuel Miranda hosted SNL, and filled it with references to parts of Hamilton, I wasn’t hearing a bunch of folks complaining how obscure it was.Report

Chris
Chris
2 years ago

In relation to the BA to PhD ratio, it would also be interesting to consider the trends concerning philosophy, English, and history requirements in core curricula. That understandably goes beyond the data set at hand, but it would help illuminate the job prospects for humanities PhDs in these fields.Report

nicholesuomi
Reply to  Chris
2 years ago

Philosophy does often get an extra appearance in core curricula in the form of both general humanities philosophy and logic. The data on which leads to more discovery majors would be much harder to gather, but informative. (I would guess the potential for philosophy to fit in more majors also helps, but to a lesser extent. Maybe a few people pick up a (double) major after their business/legal/bio ethics courses?)Report

Possibly Jaded
Possibly Jaded
2 years ago

Genuine question: Why do we want more philosophy students, especially given the current job market in academic philosophy? What would the right amount of students be?Report

A.
A.
2 years ago

Getting a philosophy PhD is one thing, a BA another thing. The lack of jobs is not so relevant to the BA. And for how many majors? I don’t know, but a lot more than we have. I think a philosophy major is a valuable things, especially if it is part of a double major. Report