In January of 2016, Kentucky governor Matt Bevin joined a chorus of voices calling for the slashing of humanities in college education in favor of science, technology, engineering, and math education (STEM) and vocational-based degrees. His stance is notably joined by former presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who received criticism over his “more welders and less philosophers” comment in 2015, and North Carolina governor Pat McCrory, who questioned “what we are teaching [humanities] courses for if they’re not going to help get a job.”
Ironically, Governor Bevin happens to have a degree in East Asian Studies, the same type of program he wishes to deride. Marco Rubio similarly has a degree in political science, while Pat McCrory holds a degree in political science and education. Clearly, despite the rhetoric of their statements, these national leaders see personal value in pursuing non-technical studies.
These calls do not occur in isolation. Government leaders and business owners across the country are calling for more students to pursue technical skills, putting into question what part the public university system is meant to play in the scope of education and employment. Despite the wishes of many conservatives, universities are not meant to be merely job incubators churning out the skilled workers of tomorrow. Instead, they serve a higher purpose, providing havens of knowledge and research for students to pursue their intellectual passions — including humanities.
Universities originated as tools of the elite, where children could be shipped off to become cultured in the liberal arts before taking the place of their elders. Knowledge was a commodity and luxury, inaccessible to the general populace. As the amount of available knowledge grew, populations diversified, and governments and businesses realized an educated populace was beneficial, university education became open to the masses. Colleges began to pop up all over the country, and higher education, though still in part a luxury, became attainable.
Part of the reason for this expansion, however, was a government push for more technical degrees. Mechanical and agricultural universities were founded in order to meet the needs of a growing industrial populace. Though the goal of these universities was to churn out professional students, in order to remain competitive in the market, humanities curriculum were also included. This served the function of capturing a wide array of student interest which was still necessary for universities to function. As a result, humanities left the realm of prestigious private education and entered the public realm, allowing knowledge of the arts, languages, literature, and government to flourish at all levels of academia.
Current government initiatives, however, are attempting to hark back to the days of centuries past, where the liberal arts were largely ignored in favor of a factory-style production of trained students funneled into the workforce. For example, many state governments, Texas included, are offering greater funding to universities that produce more STEM and medical graduates. STEM funding programs, along with a political push from government officials, incentivize the reduction or dismantling of humanities programs in favor of more STEM initiatives. These moves in the world of politics and academia beg the question of what place the humanities have in a world concerned with the wellbeing of sciences and technical education.
Humanities studies, however, play an important both in the development of personal well-being and the nation as a whole. They promote knowledge of the self and others through the studies of art and culture, which is especially relevant since most college students attend during the formative years of young adulthood. In addition, they provide the tools for the depth of knowledge, reasoning, and analysis that provide for a richer life experience that is seldom found in day-to-day employment.
Apart from merely ideological arguments, humanities studies also provide economic and social benefits. Through careful analysis of texts and art, humanities promote critical thinking skills and knowledge of how other humans beings think and act — skills that are greatly relevant in an economy that promotes a more connected and cooperative workforce. These studies also put into perspective the work done by the scientific and medical fields. For example, many engineering degree programs are now promoting the study of ethics, a core philosophical topic, in order to solve problems involving liability issues in terms of automated technology, the implications of technology that could prove detrimental or deadly to global society, and the dual pursuits of profit and customer safety. The liberal arts also allow for greater analysis and study of public policy, which is quite valuable in a democratic society and provides for better laws, policy, and regulations related to STEM work.
The consideration of pursuing liberal arts as a mere luxury that shouldn’t be publically funded also fails in light of current employment markets. According to career data analytics service Burning Glass, 75 percent of current online job postings list a minimum of a BA as a job requirement. Pursuance of a degree of any sort is no longer a mere entitlement but is becoming more and more necessary to stay relevant in the job market. With employers now having the option of sorting through mountains of applications merely by tossing out the ones that don’t have college degrees listed, a degree is becoming especially important to pursue. Expecting students to pursue a degree in a technical field when they can pursue their passions while learning the critical and social skills employers find necessary is foolhardy. Even if students’ passion projects fail, liberal arts degrees are still important to providing workers for all employment positions, not just technical ones.
These reasons pale in comparison, however, to the implications of the push to once again consider liberal arts education a luxury rather than something accessible and encouraged. The attempted dissolution of public liberal arts education represents a shift of general knowledge once again into the hands of the elite and wealthy. The idea that the knowledge inherent in liberal arts studies should remain in the hands of the powerful puts the poor at an intellectual disadvantage. That the poor should be incentivized and coerced into technical fields when fields of liberal arts are a perfectly viable market is a regressive ideal not in accordance with current societal progression.
Some would argue that information on the liberal arts is becoming increasingly accessible through forums such as the Internet, ruling an investment in this sort of education in pursuit of one’s passions unnecessary. However, this argument misses out on the true benefits of university — trained and expert faculty, like-minded cohorts that foster greater intellectual achievement, and networking resources that assist with entering the job market. In addition, pushing students out of humanities lowers the amount of research in the field. Not only does this greatly slow down our understanding of people, society, and culture, it impacts our ability as a nation and as a global society to understand the source and implications of the rapidly accelerating ideas produced from a globally connected community.
But where does UTD fall in this battle for academia?
On the previous application for the role of the University President, the university states in its strategic plan that “rather than offer all programs for all people, the University plans on building upon existing strengths and areas of greatest opportunity, remaining true to the institution’s roots and legacy while addressing the need for change and innovate to meet today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.” While this sounds like a reasonable and economically viable strategy, current national rhetoric, the composition of the university, and the administration of funding puts UTD’s current humanity programs in great danger.
Through statements like those above, the university is implying an institutional mission to pursue STEM and technical fields while leaving humanities to wither into the background. While founding a university on these principles is not inherently wrong, it undermines the relevance of UTD’s current humanities degrees. In advertising to potential students to come to UTD, the school promises degrees that will increasingly grow in relevance and importance over time as the university becomes a regional powerhouse. This promise, however, does not seem to extend to humanities departments. Rather, the fulfillment of the university’s current strategic plan suggests these departments will fade into the background.
This strategic plan, plainly put, is a snub and insult to current students pursuing humanities degrees. In fact, this approach is counterintuitive to some of the university’s other goals. The university seeks to ascend to the peaks of national rankings over the course of its growth, but the great majority of college rankings systems evaluate all of the university’s components and departments. Leaving some departments floundering greatly impacts the university’s overall effectiveness.
UTD marketing consistently promotes the university as the “MIT of the South”. MIT, however, though a STEM megahub, still encourages the pursuit of humanities, with students frequently opting for secondary humanities majors to align with their technical ones. These humanities degrees are nothing to scoff at; MIT remains packed to the brim with experts and rising stars in all fields, and humanities programs are not merely fluff to add to a resume but rigorous academic undertakings in their own right. UTD approaching the MIT distinction does not conflate with the school’s humanities degrees being pushed to the side.
To the university’s credit, UTD does seek integration of science and the arts. However, its implementation of this idea is also faulty. Rather than fostering nationally relevant humanities programs that can be added in addition to STEM majors, it seeks to integrate science and the arts into the same degree and into the same program, such as the Arts Technology (ATEC) program. This integration fosters conflict, with such a degree failing to be a top program for either the arts or for technology and rather only being able to promote a basic education of both. Mixing and matching degrees into combined programs prevents the individual education disciplines from flourishing in their own right.
The university also ignores the potential market for humanities majors right here at home. The city of Dallas is a metropolitan hub for the arts and culture. Many of the university’s greatest donors, such as Margaret McDermott and Edith O’Donnell, are huge purveyors of the arts and donors to the arts programs in the city as well. If the university truly seeks to capitalize on its location, then capitalizing on the neighboring market for the arts represents a sound move and would encourage not only science and technology to flourish to a greater degree in the Dallas area but the arts as well.
Due to state funding initiatives and the growing amount of STEM jobs in the global marketplace, it makes sense for the university to foster STEM majors within its community. But when new research centers and classroom buildings are announced, such as the centers for Bioengineering and Brain Health, with no mention of initiatives intended for humanities programs, it’s reasonable for current humanities students to become worried of their relevance within their university system.
UT Dallas seeks to invite all types of students, for reasons such as diversity and complexity of the student body and having intelligent, dedicated students in all major disciplines in order to promote the school’s general welfare. However, failing to promote humanities initiatives in a school where prospective students were encouraged to attend causes these students to question their decision and feel powerless to enact any change. The university’s decision to pursue scientific and technical matters is institutionalized in its genetic code, but humanities and liberal arts studies can easily be encouraged in tandem rather than overtaken. This benefits the student body as a whole and grows the university in all of its iterations and disciplines, rather than leaving a great proportion of students feeling left behind with their hands in the air.