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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