Is Specialization Hurting the Liberal Arts?

By Alex Chediak Published on December 27, 2018

The University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point is experiencing a budget shortfall to the tune of $7.9 million. A year ago they cut $12 million from their budget. But with enrollment continuing to fall, six liberal arts majors are now on the chopping block. Including history.  

Students in these majors would be allowed to complete their programs. Many of the faculty would stay to teach liberal arts courses to students in other disciplines. But some layoffs are expected.

The proposal has caused alarm. In 2015, Governor Walker supposedly tried to remove the phrase “search for truth” from the university’s mission statement. He wanted to add language about meeting workplace needs. No language changes ever materialized. But after budget cuts and a tuition freeze mandate, opposition to UW’s proposal is not a surprise.

Fewer Students are Choosing Humanities Majors

Greg Summers is the provost and vice chancellor at Stevens Point. In addressing the situation, Summers explained: “We’re facing some changing enrollment behaviors. And students are far more cost-conscious than they used to be.”

What’s going on here? The standard answer is that students today are all about the “return on investment” for their tuition dollars. The earning prospects for applied majors like engineering or nursing are more attractive than for liberal arts majors, especially in the short-term. Students are going where they think the money is.

Why is This Happening?

That might be some of it. But there’s another factor worth exploring. A few decades ago, big changes in liberal arts course requirements were made. Things have never been the same. John Hopkins University historians Hal Brands and Francis J. Gavin argue that increased specialization has made the history major less accessible to the public. 

Similarly, Harvard’s American historian Jill Lepore recently lamented that “the retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.”

Could it be that the loss of interest in liberal arts is less about outside forces and more about internal decisions?

Victor Davis Hanson was trained in the classics. He’s a long-time champion for the liberal arts. Hanson says folks today are less interested in the liberal arts because of political correctness and multiculturalism. Some thirty years ago Jesse Jackson told us “hey hey, ho ho western civ has got to go.” And go it did. The curriculum battles of the 1980s were lost by the traditionalists, and in spectacular fashion.

Schools across the country have removed once-required courses in history, literature, and philosophy at a surprising pace. Most students now spend less time reading “dead white men” and more time in trendy — and often easier — courses of their choice. Plato, Homer, Locke, and Shakespeare have been replaced with thinkers steeped in postmodernism and in the view that history is “a melodrama of race, class, and gender oppression.”

Majors that once had heft and broad applicability have become splintered by the narrow research interests and social agendas of mostly progressive professors. Should we really be surprised that as the price tag of college ticked upwards, these majors have become a harder sell? As for the job market, it’s not surprising that a curricula more influenced by esoteric ivory tower fads better prepares humanities majors for graduate school than for employment.

If what Brands, Gavin, Lepore, and Hanson are saying is true, it means the liberal arts bear some responsibility for their decline.

The Liberal Arts Matter — So Do Them Well

The University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point needs to make difficult trade-offs to make payroll. It makes sense that they’d focus on areas of growing student interest. But they’ve pledged to infuse liberal arts courses into all their majors — and that also makes sense.

At any college, the goal should be to graduate competent and well-rounded students. Graduates should be trained not just for one job but for a wide-ranging career, for life, and for leadership.

This will mean remembering the original purpose of the liberal arts: Exposing students to the greatest writings in history, along with the most significant cultural, philosophical, and historical questions, insights, and debates. Such training gives students a vantage point from which to best assess and impact their own culture. Such training “liberates” students to build a virtuous, meaningful, and joyful life.

If this was imparted to every college student — even through just a handful of courses — it would raise the academic bar considerably. And if these courses were taught by the best professors? They would powerfully recruit many students into liberal arts majors. 

 

Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

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