Monday, March 19, 2018

“Eliminating the humanities and other ‘unprofitable’ fields does more harm than good”—Willard Dix

“On its website, the University of Wisconsin--Stevens Point still has these statements: At UW-Stevens Point, you will enter a broad-based general education program. Our faculty will guide you toward global citizenship. They will challenge you to see the world from others’ perspectives.

“Students are challenged to think globally and recognize their responsibility toward civic engagement and environmental sustainability. This critical foundation of our university degree allows students to build toward more advanced and specialized work in every major, minor and certificate program. Educational professionals and business leaders from all across the nation recognize the value of this type of broad-based education. It allows for intellectual flexibility and personal and professional growth.

“These guiding principles can be found in one form or another on many colleges' websites, espousing not only a widely-based education but also a path toward "flexibility" in one's eventual career.

“That was then, though this is now:

“To create programs that meet the evolving needs of students, UW-Stevens Point proposes shifting resources from programs where fewer students are enrolled. Discontinuing the following programs is recommended:

American Studies
Art - Graphic Design will continue as a distinct major
English - English for teacher certification will continue
History - Social Science for teacher certification will continue
Music Literature
Political Science
Sociology -- Social Work major will continue

“In effect, UW-SP is cutting the heart out of its educational mission in order to ‘prepare for the future.’ (Note that English, history and sociology will continue only as transactional majors.) The major reasons for this shift, according to the university, are a $4.5M deficit, a decline in enrollment and lower tuition revenues. Given the roiling state of Wisconsin's higher education system under its current government, these aren't negligible reasons. However, they also embody an attitude toward higher education that has been infecting higher education more generally over the last decade or so: If it doesn't pay, it doesn't stay.

“While the university's chancellor, Bernie Patterson, says ‘we remain committed to ensuring every student who graduates from UW-Stevens Point is thoroughly grounded in the liberal arts, as well as prepared for a successful career path,’ it's notable that the proposed replacements for the majors on the block include:

Chemical Engineering
Computer Information Systems
Conservation Law Enforcement
Fire Science
Graphic Design
Captive Wildlife
Ecosystem Design and Remediation
Environmental Engineering
Geographic Information Science
Master of Business Administration
Master of Natural Resources
Doctor of Physical Therapy

“It seems clear that the university, far from continuing to thoroughly ground its students in the liberal arts as part of their educations, is converting itself into a trade school, relying on market forces to determine its programs and jettisoning anything that doesn't offer a clear path toward a career.

In a recent article in Inside Higher Education, Mary Bowman, a professor of English and chair of the council’s General Education Committee, said, ‘no formally constituted committee or working group was involved in producing the plan released Monday, and to what degree any faculty recommendations were incorporated is unclear.

“Economics and enrollment drops have motivated other institutions similarly. The chancellor of Southern Illinois University--Carbondale proposed last year that all departments be eliminated in favor of a more amorphous structure. As reported in Inside Higher Education: ‘ the case of proposed School of Humanities within the proposed College of Liberal and Performing Arts, for example, there would still be programs, courses and majors in history, English, philosophy, philosophy and languages, cultures and international studies. But there would no longer be a departmental structure to support them.’

“As of this writing, it appears that the subjects themselves haven't been eliminated, but it's hard not to wonder how each field functions without a ‘departmental structure.’ Are things streamlined as a result? Is there more flexibility and less bureaucracy?

“A similar situation existed at Kean University in New Jersey in 2010 and for reasons similar to Wisconsin's: a huge budget deficit and declining enrollments. reported that: The restructuring — which university administrators say will save nearly $2 million — will remove 38 department chairs from their posts and return them to the classroom. Under the plan, they will be replaced with executive directors and program coordinators who will manage 18 newly-consolidated schools on the Union Township campus.

“While not eliminating fields totally, it has, in essence, downgraded them to ‘Studies’ status. There's now a ‘School of English Studies,’ for example. Instead of a department chair, there's an executive director.

“I don't want to suggest that colleges and universities shouldn't respond to the various financial and cultural forces surrounding them. After all, many that now turn out lawyers, doctors and business leaders were founded to educate ministers and men, not women. Nor should we discount the value of vocational education. But to prioritize departments that pay over those that may be elemental (English, history, philosophy, for example) but not ‘profitable,’ is wrongheaded in the long run.

“To say, as columnist Peter Cohan did in 2012, that colleges should ‘cut out the departments offering majors that make students unemployable’ mistakes ‘education’ for ‘training’ in its most extreme form. Like many people, Cohan wrongly conflates major’ with ‘job’: ‘Those with majors in zoology, anthropology, philosophy, art history and humanities don't stand much of a chance of getting jobs requiring a college degree.’ He assumes that one's major will be one's career. As many, many liberal arts college graduates could tell him, he's far out in left field.

“So far, most of the biggest eviscerations of liberal arts missions seem to have been in public institutions. But they presage a dismal, corporatization of education, where ‘work’ is the only goal for every student and ‘productivity’ is the only measure of worth. Actions like those at Stevens Point send ripples far beyond Wisconsin; they give other institutions and lawmakers hostile to education, encouragement to do the same.

“Margaret Spellings, president of the University of North Carolina system, puts the case for a well-rounded education succinctly: ‘Education is not a commodity, and making it more accessible doesn’t make it less valuable. Our country thrives when more people get the chance to learn and contribute.’ Even future mechanics and firefighters can appreciate Homer or the origins and meaning of historical events. Surely, to study the history of race relations in the U.S. can help anyone become more conscious of today's social and cultural needs, for example. 

“They may not have ‘value’ according to strict economic rules, but the liberal arts do have a leavening value that helps make every student more than just a future drone, narrowly confined to his or her job without an awareness, let's say, of cultural context or an appreciation for art and literature. Applying strict cost/benefit analyses to academic fields may seem like a short-term cure, but in the long run, eliminating the humanities and other ‘unprofitable’ fields does more harm than good.”

See  Willard Dix’s blog at for essays about the college admission process itself.


The Case for Teaching Humanities:

“…Rain does not follow the plow. Political freedom, whatever the market evangelists may tell us, is not an automatic by-product of a growing economy; democratic institutions do not spring up, like flowers at the feet of the magi, in the tire tracks of commerce. They just don’t. They’re a different species. They require a different kind of tending. 

“The case for the humanities is not hard to make, though it can be difficult—to such an extent have we been marginalized, so long have we acceded to that marginalization—not to sound either defensive or naive. The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their ‘product’ not truth but the reasoned search for truth, their ‘success’ something very much like Frost’s momentary stay against confusion. 

“They are thus, inescapably, political. Why? Because they complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pieties. Because they grow uncertainty. Because they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redraw the borders of tolerance. Because out of all this work of self-building might emerge an individual capable of humility in the face of complexity; an individual formed through questioning and therefore unlikely to cede that right; an individual resistant to coercion, to manipulation and demagoguery in all their forms. 

“The humanities, in short, are a superb delivery mechanism for what we might call democratic values. There is no better that I am aware of. This, I would submit, is value— and cheap at the price. This is utility of a higher order. Considering where the rising arcs of our ignorance and our deference lead, what could represent a better investment? Given our fondness for slogans, our childlike susceptibility to bullying and rant, our impatience with both evidence and ambiguity, what could earn us, over time, a better rate of return?...” (Mark Slouka, “Dehumanized” 2009).

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr. Brown,

    I am writing an article for the LION Newspaper because Philosophy has been cancelled for the 2016-2017 school year. I was wondering if you could answer some questions about it since you taught that class for so many years.

    1. How long did you teach the class for?
    2. As a former teacher of the class, what do you think students will lose as this class is taken away?
    3. Why should students be taking this class?
    4. Why should the class be kept?
    5. With the number of students who signed up for the class being close to the requirement, do you think there should have been more of a push to keep the class? Why?

    Thank you in advance for your help with my article.

    Sheridan Spiess

    Dear Sheridan,

    I taught the philosophy class at Lyons Township High School for several years before I retired in 2009. I re-designed the course completely to reflect the history of western philosophy from the pre-Socratics to modern philosophers. My goal for the course was to introduce students to the study of interesting and relevant ideas and to offer a range of responses to such important questions as “Is there a difference between what we claim to believe and what we claim to know?” “What is the nature of the external world?” and “What is knowledge?”

    Some of the many philosophers discussed in my philosophy class were Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Camus and Wittgenstein. The course covered such topics as determinism, Existentialism, the problem of evil, the nature and existence of reality, and arguments in the philosophy of religion and ethics.

    If the course is dropped from LT's curriculum, students will miss an opportunity to acquire significant skills that are taught distinctively in a philosophy class. Why a philosophy class should be taught is evident in the very objectives of the course itself: for instance, students of philosophy demonstrate the ability to recognize the assumptions and implications of specific, complex philosophical positions not found in other classes; students show the ability to analyze and synthesize readings and discussions of diverse and multifaceted, speculative ideas.

    Philosophy students reveal an understanding of formal and informal aspects of logic in both writing and discussions. Philosophy students also comprehend the difference in scope and intention of theoretical reasoning versus practical reasoning. These are just a few explanations, among so many others, why a philosophy course is valuable and should be taught at LT.

    I assume that whoever decided the class would not be offered ignored the relevance of critical thinking skills and the various principles, concepts, and theories that are studied in a philosophy class. This is most unfortunate.

    I would not abdicate so easily; however, it will take a concerted effort on the part of teachers, students and their parents to prove the course’s worth in the curriculum.

    Perhaps the wider issue to address here is the loss of autonomy for teachers and students who face an ever-increasing stream of mandates, and thus a philosophy class can be eliminated because it isn’t a class that can be easily assessed by corporate testing companies, like Pearson, with their emphasis upon and frequency of district-wide standardized testing as a means of measuring student, teacher, and school performances.

    We might ascertain that perhaps it is because of this “same skills” or “one-size-fits-all” approach to curricula, with a focus on only those skills that can be “tested with pre-packaged tests,” that would eliminate a philosophy class because it obviously does not fit in with the punitive high-stakes testing methodology of today.

    Best regards,
    Glen Brown