Removing Humanities from Universities Undermines the Purpose of College

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Years ago, when I heard friends complaining about the amount of readings that humanities classes required, I thought that I was fortunate for not taking these classes that I deemed boring and useless. Now that I am entering my last quarter at UCI, almost all of my classes are from the humanities school. I have been able to improve my writing and critical thinking skills and grow personally from a shy student to a more outgoing person, in addition to joining two organizations that I have grown to care for and, in a way, consider my family. Thus, I cannot imagine UCI or any university without a respectable humanities program.

Unfortunately, last month, the University of Wisconsin — Stevens Point (UWSP), announced its plans to drop 13 majors that it didn’t consider profitable, though humanities classes and minors will continue to exist at UWSP. Most of the programs set to disappear are from social sciences and humanities, including English, philosophy and political science, among others. UWFP’s plan would favor more profitable and useful majors in the region like “Aquaculture/Aquaponics, Captive Wildlife, Ecosystem Design and Remediation, Environmental Engineering and Geographic Information Science,” and expand other programs demanded in the region.

This restructuring of the University of Wisconsin is not a new development as Valerie Strauss, an education reporter, noted in a Washington Post article. In the article, Strauss mentioned that the possible degradation of the University of Wisconsin’s academic prestige started in 2015 when the governor Scott Walker subtly altered the “Wisconsin Idea,” or guiding principle of the famed university system, from “‘search for truth’ and ‘improve the human condition’ and replacing them to ‘meet the state’s workforce needs.’” The views of the president of the University of Wisconsin — Stevens Point and that of governor Walker seem to defeat the academic and central purpose of a university, for a utilitarian and corporate one.

The prime reason why the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point is scrapping 13 majors is simple; like most college students, the university is in debt, “a $4.5 million deficit over two years” that is the result of “declining enrollment…[and] lower tuition revenue.” However, the problems of the University of Wisconsin seem more like structural problems of the University of Wisconsin system, rather than a simplistic supply and demand exercise. The University of Wisconsin has eleven campuses in a six million people state, which is absurd, especially considering that some countries with six million inhabitants, like Kyrgyzstan and Nicaragua would only dream of having such world-class academic institutions.

Likewise, Richard Vedder, an emeritus professor at Ohio University, wrote in a Forbes column that “This [enrollment decline] is a big problem in eastern and midwestern states with stagnant populations. The school must cut costs — moreover, fewer faculty are needed to teach.” From this statement, one must wonder about the true objectives of this university: are they willing to sacrifice the knowledge they were entrusted to protect in order to survive financially? If that’s the case, the purpose of universities would be defeated. Knowledge should not be sacrificed to correct the mistakes of a seemingly negligent administration, especially in a university that is supposed to be overflowing with bright minds.

The center of this knowledge is humanities, to the despair of STEM majors. Justin Stover, a quondam fellow of All Souls College, University of Oxford and a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, wrote in an American Affairs article that “The university can be many things, but without us [humanities], a university it will not be.”

Originally, universities taught two types of classes: arts and the three more highers or more professionally oriented degrees — theology, law and medicine. Stover argued that STEM classes that once were peripheral to universities are now becoming part of the core and displacing arts and humanities to the periphery.

Technical institutes that wish to become certified universities have to add humanities classes to their curriculum. Stover mentioned the case of the University of Illinois, which transitioned from technical school to university in 1885, “and within decades, its presidents realized that they needed to build a proper humanities core to justify being a premier public university.” Stover added that “The most prestigious universities in the West are still those defined by their humanities legacy,” thus, it is impossible to imagine any University of California, or for that matter, any University of Wisconsin, without a decent humanities curriculum.

The common perception that humanities classes do not develop student labor skills is misguided. For Richard Vedder, humanities classes develop critical reasoning in students, which helps students learn jobs faster “where productive job skills are mostly acquired.” The former dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University and current executive director of the Modern Language Association, Paula Kreb, said in an opinion article for the Washington Post that unexpectedly, an IT and networking company had hired dozens of recent college graduates from various majors to train as network engineers. Kreb noted that the president of the company referred to them as “engineers,” therefore proving that humanities students can thrive even in STEM workplaces. Additionally, a CVS Health executive told Kreb about “many successful career paths that humanities majors had taken in his company.” Due to their college education, liberal arts students are highly adaptable in the labor market, thus fulfilling the altered Wisconsin idea that favors “the state’s workforce needs.”

Another argument against the elimination of humanities, proposed by Kreb, stems from the idea of privilege. The children of wealthy individuals would have access to their preferred majors in humanities in private and public research universities, while students from lower middle class and working class would be limited to less prestigious public universities that would resemble technical institutes.

However, this is not a problem for a near dystopian future; it is happening now, and the actions of the University of Wisconsin reflect a trend that has been taking place since 2006. Indiana State University eliminated 48 programs between 2006 and 2008, which included art history, German and journalism, as a result of empty several classes. In 2012, the University of Northern Iowa announced it would eliminate one fifth of its academic departments. The American Association of University Professors denounced the university’s decision as a move “created solely as a device for laying off members of the faculty whom the administration no longer wished to retain.” Similarly, the University of Alaska at Anchorage, created a list of majors that might be at risk of disappearing, and music and other humanities programs were threatened, but one surprising addition to the list was chemistry, another unpopular programs in Alaska.
On March 21, a sit-in took place in front of UWSP’s Old Main building to protest the university proposal to cut 13 majors. The students submitted a letter to the chancellor and the governance body of the university to create a second proposal. Inasmuch, the students are willing to work with the university governance to preserve the soon-to-be extinguished majors, or at least reach a compromise that would prevent the elimination of some programs, while securing the fiscal future of the university.

Humanities classes and programs, despite sometimes being considered inferior, hold great value to the university and society. Humanities classes teach students to think critically, which in turn would make them adaptable to the workforce. A university without humanities would lose its identity as a respectable higher education institution because it would, otherwise, be a technical institution. The elimination of humanities would create a class of people whose working options are limited to technical universities because they cannot afford public research or private universities that offer humanities. Even though some programs’ popularity is decreasing, there is no reason to eliminate them, especially if they are, like humanities, essential to the identity of the university.

Sebastian Suarez is a fourth-year political science major. He can be reached at ssuarez1@uci.edu.

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