The Humanities in a Changing World

The Humanities in a Changing World March 24, 2018

Most readers of this blog will have heard this news: “The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point plans to address “fiscal challenges” by expanding some academic programs and discontinuing others, it announced Monday. Tenured faculty positions are at stake, with possible layoffs occurring by 2020.” That (rather than comparable developments in Denmark) is presumably what motivated the article by Ryan Craig, suggesting that universities ought to kill, cull, and/or close “underperforming” academic programs. There is, needless to say, a great deal that is problematic in that article. But it also raises a point that I think really does require discussion at universities. To give an example that hits close to home, far fewer students come to university interested in taking courses on the Bible (to say nothing of biblical languages) at my university nowadays than was the case a few decades ago. On the one hand, that might indicate a need to require students to study something they need to know about, yet the need for which they do not appreciate. On the other hand, it might also indicate a change in student interests and demographics that universities need to adjust to. It used to be that the focus in academics and the business world alike was on European languages. The increased recognition of the need to offer more opportunities to study Hindi and Mandarin is surely a shift in a positive direction away from an approach that reflects a holdover from the colonial era. Universities should find ways to add the new and expand growing areas without simply eliminating the old – if you cannot study Classics or German at all at a university, that is hardly an improvement!

And so I think that there is a need for open and serious conversations about how universities should adapt to changing times, in ways that support and respond to positive global trends without simply jumping on bandwagons or pandering to student preferences in a way that treats them as customers to be satisfied even if what we provide to them – at their own request! – is not what they need.

The main thing that made me decide not to simply skim past this article without commenting is the parallel to changing economy and business. At what point does one recognize and embrace the fact that, while we still have use for coal and steel, the demand is not the same as it once was and will never again be as it used to, and embrace difficult but radical reinvention of ourselves?

It strikes me that the approach of a number of Republican politicians to higher education is exactly the opposite of their approach to dealing with such economic challenges. And so I want to make sure that the approach of those of us in higher ed who criticize these politicians does not inadvertently mirror the very stance that we oppose when we encounter it in a domain other than our own workplace.

However, let us also not forget that, even if we decide that we need more scientists and engineers as a society, we do not cease to need linguists, philosophers, and historians. Even if there is a place for adaptation in what universities offer, surely it is crucial that we safeguard the possibility for people to pursue less well-paid and less popular vocational paths that are nonetheless crucial to society!

I have emphasized before the data indicating that majoring in the liberal arts has in fact been demonstrated time and again, historically and in the present day, to serve graduates well whether they go to work for Google or become lawyers or do anything else. But merely emphasizing that again, in addition to being repetitive, also risks giving the impression that we don’t need to change, adapt, grow, and sometimes shrink in response to changing times.

What are your thoughts on how higher ed needs to adapt to changing times – and on when and how it needs to persist defiantly in the face of attacks and criticisms?

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Weird, I was just thinking about this very topic, yesterday.

    One of my clients produces software for higher learning institutions that, among other things, helps them optimize for facility usage, which involves seating. The predictive metrics in the software show institutions what classes are likely to have high or low enrollment. From a strictly mechanistic standpoint, this would enable a college or university to begin to weed out their low-attended classes and save money.

    But a college or university can also easily decide there are other values in play besides money and make their decisions based on that.

    One thing that complicates the issue, though, is jobs and marketability. It’s not solely a matter of student interest; it’s also a matter of what they think they can get jobs with when they graduate. When I got my degree, building websites was still fairly new territory for everyone, so even though my degree is Religion/Philosophy, I was able to teach myself web development and start a career doing that. I doubt I could pull that off quite as easily, today, although it might be possible.

    Even in those specific fields, it would be very difficult to get a job today as a professor in religion or philosophy. My philosophy professor warned me about this back when I was getting my degree many years ago. The rate of open professorships in many humanities is much smaller than the amount of doctorates produced in those fields, and this is going to influence demand for those degrees, which will also influence the number of open positions.

    Knowing this, a student may have a very vibrant interest in philosophy (for example) but feel they cannot invest too heavily in it because they need a degree that is more likely to land them a job, and while this fear may be out of proportion to the reality in some cases, it’s not an unwarranted fear.

    For better and worse, our economy does not run very much off intrinsic value; it runs off pragmatic value. What can you convince someone to pay for? And when real life and college debt are staring you in the face, it can be very hard to be motivated by ideas like “an informed society” or “a society that remembers the mistakes of the past” or even “critical thinking.” I’m not in the least saying that’s the way the world should work, but it’s the way the world is working right now.

    • Matthew

      I just learned that for free citizens of Greece and Rome, a liberal arts or humanities education was thought as absolutely necessary for a human being to experience freedom. Humanities education was seen as the conduit for the development of the whole human being to their fullest potential.

      Times have certainly changed in that it seems vocational and technical education are now the educational gold standard. I´m not knocking vocational and technical education at all, but it seems that humanities education takes a real hit these days.

      That said, I cannot ignore call centers with PhD qualified customer assistants in their ranks, but I digress …

  • Chuck Johnson

    I am not surprised.
    Science, engineering and technology education works best when the students are physically present in class.
    Medical educations, too.

    But the kind of courses that you mention, James, are increasingly done online.
    Online courses are a money-saver.

  • Oscar Scott Oliver

    I was lucky (or by divine sovereign oversight) when I went to Univ. of Ill. @ Chgo. in 1970. I accidently/coincidentally (or miraculously) learned about a new experimental program of self-designed curriculum for graduation in LAS. The only requirement was to have 180 qtr. hours to graduate with the stipulation that most of the courses had to be at 200 or above level. I did choose to have a Philosophy major. However I also had enough course credits to major in religious studies, psychology and sociology. Wouldn’t change my higher education for any sum of money.

    One approach is the cross-disciplinary teaching of courses. It is being done in some colleges more than others. There is a lot of talk in business writings about creativity. With the integration of two or more diverse perspectives, a student will have better tools for being creative.

    There is very little humor that is identified in the Bible so the natural proclivity of humankind is to think that God is a distant father who is humorless. I will illustrate it with my favorite Biblical hero Gideon. There is Gideon hunched down in a wine press which is probably at least 4′ high hiding from the Midianites. He hears this booming voice, “Yo, mighty man of valor, the Lord is with you.” Gideon peeks over the side opposite of the booming voice to see if anyone else is around. Turning his head to the left and right he sees no one. He hunches down and moves to where the voice came from. Once more he peeks over the edge and the man motions for him to stand up. Gideon stands and motions toward himself with a quizzical look. The man shakes his head yes. So Gideon speaks and denies what he heard just like Moses. I have learned from the Jews that the Bible is terse and there is much that is missing. If you teach a course “Humor in the Bible,” I would think you would get an overwhelming response for it. I don’t know if you have a comic bone in your body, so you might want to ask some comedian to help you. I would think a book could be made from it.