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When you cut the humanities, what you lose is the human

When you cut the humanities, what you lose is the human

A few months after the end of spring quarter classes in 2016, one of my former Northwestern University students emailed that he had found an old copy of the essays of 16th-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne on a trip to France.  

This pre-med and French double major wrote that this text he studied in my class would “reside proudly on my bookshelf or in my hands for the rest of my life.”

Because I am a professor of Renaissance literature, many ask me what the use is of studying literature, and how it can possibly lead to a job. True, it is likely that no employer has ever quizzed an applicant about Montaigne or William Shakespeare in a job interview. But erasing the wisdom of literary icons from the college curriculum does not make anyone more employable. It may actually hurt. 

 

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Recent news of a proposal by University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point administration to cut 13 majors in the humanities and social sciences including English, Philosophy, History, Political Science, American Studies, Spanish, French and German, in favor of programs with “high-demand career paths” strikes hard.  

The reaction on the campus of 8,200 students in one of the country’s largest state systems resulted in a town hall of students, faculty and members of the community expressing concern

This one campus is not alone in targeting the liberal arts.

In February, the White House proposed a budget that would “begin shutting down” the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Thankfully, the recently passed spending bill averts these cuts.

Yet criticism of the humanities seems commonplace among policymakers. That is in the face of contrary evidence including a recent study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences showing that humanities graduates have similar rates of employment and job satisfaction than those in other fields.

The humanities has an unlikely ally in Apple CEO Tim Cook who recently advocated for a revamping of education, saying there is a need for the "intersection of liberal arts and technology. That intersection is where we can amplify learning and creativity." 

A 2016 study of 15,000 business leaders in 18 countries found that those with degrees in the humanities performed better than those in Engineering, Law, IT, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences and even MBAs in a number of areas considered crucial to good leadership.

And new data released by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and the NEA shows that the arts contribute $763.3 billion to the U.S. economy. That is more than the agriculture, transportation or warehousing sectors.

The critical issue is that exclusively focusing on jobs obscures a larger question in the debate about the liberal arts: the purpose of a university education.

First conceptualized in classical antiquity, the liberal arts, from the Latin artes liberales, with liber meaning “free,” were so named because they were thought to be the fields of study most fitting to free men. (At the time education excluded women, slaves or laborers).

Yet it was a common saying among philosophers and writers from the Romans through to the Renaissance that the liberal arts were more than that — they were the studies that gave someone their freedom.

To be sure, the universities of the Middle Ages and Renaissance that taught the liberal arts were decidedly elitist, excluding large swaths of the population — namely all women and the lower classes. They also looked down on “mechanical” studies, or what we would now call professional or technical training.

One reason for this is that universities, from their early days in Medieval Europe, never set out to train workers. The university was intended to train the citizen.

 Early universities emphasized those studies that would prepare students for civic life. These included most importantly grammar, logic and rhetoric (called the trivium) but also arithmetic, music, astronomy and geometry (the quadrivium).

The history of the liberal arts highlights a sad irony in the push by today’s federal and state-level officials to eliminate programs in the humanities and social sciences. They propose to cut the very fields that give them their political efficacy. Policy makers’ ability to persuade, argue convictions, conceptualize priorities, as well as engage with and respond to fellow citizens is derived from those very studies they want to deny to future generations. 

From the perspective of the earliest universities, what’s at stake in eliminating the liberal arts is no less than the foundation of human society.

Of course, for many a university education in the U.S. comes at enormous financial cost. So students and parents rightly look for a return on their huge investment. This leads many to ask why they should pay so dearly if the subject matter does not help in job placement.

 But lawmakers who answer with cuts to the humanities and social sciences are performing a rhetorical sleight-of-hand by addressing only job placement and staying silent about a larger problem.  

Studies by the Association of American Colleges and Universities show that employers in the business and nonprofit sectors identify the critical thinking, analytical and communications skills that a humanities education provides as more important than a candidate’s choice of undergraduate major. And more employers are requiring master’s degrees in specific fields, without a particular undergraduate major.

What all the talk of cutting "impractical" majors in favor of teaching job skills covers up is the fact that a university education in the United States is wildly, unconscionably expensive.

 This doesn’t have to be the case.

For too many, a university education is out of reach. In the 2017 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development  on the state of education around the world, the United States ranks 34th out of 38 countries in the proportion of public-to-private expenditure on college education. The study shows that the U.S. provided even less public funding for higher education in 2014 than at the peak of the financial crisis in 2008.

The proportion of college tuition borne by households in the US was 5th highest among 46 countries. The same report showed that, among the 29 countries with available data, public and private institutions in the United States charged the highest tuition fees for bachelor’s degrees. The U.S. average college tuition is almost twice as high as the next-most-expensive country, Latvia. In one-third of these countries, public institutions charge no tuition fees at all for a bachelor’s degree.

Many countries, including the U.S., identify education as a human right, but here investment in that right falls off after the high school diploma. And in the push to cut funding from the liberal arts, more is lost than just the unique training in analysis, communication and critical thinking that they provide.      

The cost of a university education should not be so prohibitive that the only rationale to obtain one is to find a job. As critical as employment is, it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition for living a good life.

The humanities teach what it means to be human, and the liberal arts can still teach what it means to be free. Until we decide that the meaning of life is labor, those who propose savage cuts to programs like the ones at risk at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point subvert the intended purpose of the university itself.

Cutting college curriculum that does not appear to be job training to justify an out-of-reach price tag is a sign of a larger political failure. And one we cannot abide.  

Cynthia Nazarian, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the Department of French and Italian at Northwestern University and a Public Voices Fellow. She is the author of Love’s Wounds: Violence and The Politics of Poetry in Early Modern Europe.