Exploring the State of the Humanities in Community Colleges

Abstract

Drawing on research literature and a set of informal interviews with humanities faculty and leaders of relevant initiatives, this paper first discusses what is known about humanities coursework in community colleges. It then outlines three key challenges facing humanities education in this higher education sector: (1) an oversimplified identification of community colleges as providers primarily of vocational education, (2) limited professional supports for community college humanities faculty, and (3) weak humanities transfer pathways between community colleges and destination four-year colleges. The paper goes on to describe current efforts that attempt to address these challenges and concludes with a call for future research intended to enhance our understanding of the humanities in community colleges and the ways humanities education in community colleges might be strengthened and improved. 

Introduction

The study of the humanities has long been understood as important in developing students’ capacity to be creative and adaptable thinkers and engaged and thoughtful citizens. As our workforce needs and social and political contexts evolve, in part driven by advances in technology, skills and behaviors informed by humanities coursework are perhaps more critical than ever. Yet the study of humanities is often seen as the purview of four-year liberal arts colleges when in fact private four-year institutions confer only about a third of all bachelor’s degrees in humanities fields (American Academy of Arts & Sciences, n.d.-c). Humanities in community colleges receive very limited attention in the research literature and public discourse, compared with humanities at liberal arts colleges or four-year institutions generally, despite the fact that public two-year colleges enroll nearly 40% of all undergraduates (Ginder et al., 2018) and confer more degrees in humanities than any other sector of higher education1 (American Academy of Arts & Sciences, n.d.-a, n.d.-b). Many students who earn associate degrees in humanities from community colleges then transfer to four-year institutions for further education. And students who embark upon associate degrees in other fields at community colleges also complete humanities courses.

In this paper we discuss what is known about humanities coursework in community colleges, three key challenges facing humanities education in this sector, and current initiatives which attempt to address those challenges. We draw on the research literature and a set of informal phone interviews with humanities faculty in community colleges and leaders of initiatives designed to support humanities in community colleges (see Appendix) to inform our analysis. The individuals we interviewed shaped our understanding of the issues in the field and pointed us to research studies, resources, and examples discussed in this paper. The paper concludes with a call for future research intended to enhance our understandings of the challenges and strengths of the humanities in community colleges and the ways humanities education in community colleges might be improved.

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About

A Mellon Research Forum report published by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. Authors: Susan Bickerstaff, Thomas Brock, Adnan Moussa, and Florence Xiaotao Ran.

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