A census taken by the newly reconstituted Society for Classical Studies does not refute this bleak picture but lets it be seen in a broader context. The society surveyed over 400 US and Canadian institutions where it has reason to believe the ancient classics have recently been taught.
Of the over 400 institutions polled by the SCS 265 replied, either completely or in part, for a response rate of 65%; a slight majority of the responses came from free standing departments; another third from classics combined with other fields (e.g. a “Foreign Languages” department), the remainder reflects a variety of arrangements, including, it would seem, a fair number that offer some instruction in classics but not a degree program. This picture is consistent with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators estimate that there were 276 degree granting Classic programs in the United States in 2011/12. (That means that organized classics program are available in only about 10% of the four year institutions in the United States.)
In the SCS census about 190 departments or programs reported that one or more undergraduate received a bachelor’s degree in classics in 2013 – 14; on average there were about 8 graduating majors per department or program; the total from the reporting departments was about 1600. Adjusting for the institutions that did not respond one might guess that 2400 undergraduates in the US and Canada received a bachelor’s degree in classics during the 2013 -14 academic year. The Humanities Indicators estimated 2240 bachelor’s degrees in classics were conferred in the academic year 2011-12. These figures all seem to me to be within the static range resulting from studies based on somewhat different approaches in different years.
More alarming, however, is the finding in the Humanities Indicators’ 2012 survey of Departments in the Humanities that 5% of classics programs ceased to offer a degree at some level; the losses were concentrated in public institutions (11%) while 1 % of private institutions experienced a loss of a program. “Primarily Research” institutions were hardest hit. The overall loss in Classics is slightly less than that experienced on average in humanities fields; foreign language departments and, apparently, English experienced the heaviest losses. Stil;l, any attrition in a small and perhaps fragile fild is worrisome.
In addition to majors the SCS census found 1190 classic minors in the responding institutions; adjusting for the non-responders perhaps there were 1800 minors in all. The census also found 18 MATs, 122 MAs, and 62 Ph.D.s. These numbers probably all need to be adjusted upward, as we have seen. The number of minors seems not to be far off from the Humanities Indicator’s estimate of 1928 minors in 2011 - 12.
The SCS census also looked at enrollments in the wide variety of courses offered through classical programs. These figures, if tracked over time, may provide a better indication of the overall health of the profession than those for majors and minors. The snapshot currently available points to generally solid enrollments in courses such as Classical Mythology, Classical Civilization, Etymology, Ancient History and others. These courses may be a firewall for classics programs at a time when other foreign language programs are being hard hit. Given the negative trends affecting the humanities fields will need all the protection they can find.
Finally, the SCS census also asked departments about certain educational practices; Adam Blistein of the SCS informed me by email, “Of all the 253 departments that gave any response to this question, 158 (62.5%) participate in a study-abroad program and 68 (26.9%) offer internships for majors.” While there is room for improvement this is very good news since studies based on the National Survey of Student Engagement and other data show that these practices have powerful, long lasting educational effects. The high percentage of classics programs that contribute to honors colleges or similar operations is also noteworthy. It would be interesting to know how many other humanistic fields have demonstrate a similar commitment to these and other high impact practices.
The jury is still out, waiting for more evidence, gathered systematically and tracked consistently over time. The evidence available at this moment, points not to an imminent collapse of classical studies, but to the impact of trends adversely affecting most humanistic fields, especially foreign languages and literary studies. The wide range of approaches represented in classics departments, and their commitment to practices known to contribute to students’ cognitive growth give reason to believe that there is a secure foundation on which to build in the future, and that the field, while small and vulnerable, can continue to play an important role in North American higher education.