What is college without the liberal arts?

When was the last time you went to a faculty meeting where “pending budget cuts” wasn’t an agenda item? I can’t even recall. Two years ago, we stopped purchasing letterhead in our department. We pay our administrative assistant–a 12 month, full-time position that lists a BA as a preferred qualification–under $22,000 a year. That’s under $10 an hour, and we usually hire a recent graduate to do it. She–it’s always a woman, because it’s someone who has to be married to someone else making a decent salary, and that’s more likely to be a man, so this pay is both sexist and heterosexist–stays for less than a year before finding something better paying. We create a constant problem of unhappy employees and high turnover, which means lost time and money and, most importantly, no institutional knowledge base and broken relationships with students. If my university is typical of other regional universities, the cuts do actual damage.

Plus, by now, there’s just not much left to cut. Still, that is the promise of the fall: cuts, cuts, cuts. Open Campus provides a state-by-state update of projected state budget shortfalls and the campus funding cuts that they are are used justify. None of it looks good.

Cuts are already underway, and it seems that the most vulnerable will, as usual, be the precariously employed instructors who teach the majority of students and the academic programs that do the most to build a foundation of critical thinking: the humanities. Last week, Western Missouri University eliminated some humanities departments and slashed the size of others. COVID presents only the newest excuse to reduce and eliminate degrees in the liberal arts.

Above The Artist’s Wife (Périe, 1849–1887) Reading by Albert Bartholome. A woman reclines, a blue pill under her head, her brown hair held up with a comb. She wears a back dress with lace on the collar and sleeves, a heavy gold bracelet on her left arm and rings on her right hand. She reads a book, and a whole shelf of books is behind her. She died just 4 years after this painting was completed.

For me, college without a strong base in the liberal arts is… well, not college. Any career you want that doesn’t require a strong liberal arts background is one you can study for at a trade school or a vocational institution of some kind. If you want to be a nurse or a business person but think that the liberal arts are a waste of time, go to a stand-alone nursing or business school. But for higher ed administrators, boards of regents, and other decision-makers to take the university and gut its liberal arts so that only these “shovel ready” degrees remain undermines the most important work universities do: fostering communities of learning where students can become thoughtful citizens.

The work of the liberal arts is important no matter what a person’s major. At Teaching is Intellectual, my friend Jen Newton, assistant professor of early childhood/early childhood special education, tells her own story of falling in love with learning through the her exposure to liberal arts courses at the undergraduate level. She later pursued a degree in special education–surely one of those degrees that will remain in high demand and guarantee decent wages! Yet, as she writes, even as she prepares students for this work, she knows that a narrow education cannot help would-be teachers become the kinds of teachers and advocates that students need. “The humanities are critical,” she writes.

Becoming inclusive educators requires an understanding of why people do what they do, how people interact in groups and in social contexts, how to be antiracist, antiableist, antimysoginist, inclusive of identities and experiences other than your own. We have to unlearn gender roles and white supremacy in order to dismantle them in our classrooms, schools, communities. We need the humanities.

It’s not enough to prepare people for a profession. We cannot prepare teachers in isolation without robust knowledge of writing, critical thinking, human development, systems, politics, literature.

This is equally true of future nurses, engineers, and business executives–the careers we are told we need to focus our degrees on. And as a future patient or client or business partner, you will receive better service from a nurse or engineer or business person if they have read Toni Morrison and Shakespeare, if they have studied sociology and anthropology and psychology, religion and philosophy.

Unfortunately, by the time we realize that, we will have lost cohorts of students whose intellectual growth would have been enhanced by more liberal arts classes.

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3 thoughts on “What is college without the liberal arts?

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  1. “We pay our administrative assistant–[…]. She–it’s always a woman.”

    Sounds like you’re discriminating against men there by always insisting on hiring a woman, which is definitely sexist. (The School of Math at Arizona State is about 3:1 female to male.)

    “For me, college without a strong base in the liberal arts is… well, not college.”

    I agree, because the seven liberal arts are different from the humanities departments. The seven liberal arts are: Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy and Music. Three out of seven of those are STEM topics, with Music Theory being highly mathematical, and Dialectic using mathematics as well.

    The article linked to has an interview with a philosophy professor, who says that that department has been cut particularly harshly. It’s about time. Philosophy has added nothing to the world; they have not solved any of the basic questions that were around 2000 years ago. The only useful part of philosophy is Logic, which mathematicians have developed quite well. [Some people would add computer scientists to the mathematicians, but computer science is really part of mathematics.]

    Philosophy is the way to get from nothing to nowhere, correctly.

    “Cuts are already underway, and it seems that the most vulnerable will, as usual, be the precariously employed instructors who teach the majority of students and the academic programs that do the most to build a foundation of critical thinking.”

    Today, I got an email from ASU’s Academic Senate about the plans for furloughs. It said, in part: “Salary reductions, if they occur, will be progressive, with the highest paid taking the largest percentage cuts. The administration hopes to avoid layoffs and furloughs, because most university employees directly or indirectly serve students and research functions.” No word about whether our President will have some of his $700K cut.


    1. We are not sexist because we hire women. We are sexist because we have crafted a job that few men would take—because to live on these low wages, you have to have a partner who makes a better income. That typically means you are married to a man. Which means that, typically, only married women apply.

      I am not sure if your arguments here are a kind of teasing or an effort to support my argument that we need liberal arts through example of what it looks like when scholars don’t engage the humanities.

      But let’s no fight each other when there are million dollar presidents to fight?


      1. The comment about administrative assistants was half-joke. (Historically, teachers were mostly women who were married, which is why teachers’ salaries are on the low side.)

        I have no love for philosophy, though. One of the topics in the class I took was the ontological argument for God. (At the time Keystone ran a commercial for their beer which ran: “Wouldn’t it be great if […], and if […], and if that beer were great, like Keystone?” The ontological argument seems to run along these lines.) So, a perfect god would be able to do anything that is logically possible. Well, an omniscient being can’t have faith.

        There were a couple of other topics that showed that the idea of philosophy was to brainstorm but keep ideas, even if they led nowhere. I’ve read a few articles about philosophy independently, and my opinion hasn’t changed. Worthless stuff (except for Logic, of course).


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