It’s common to fret over unintended consequences. But what about intended consequences?
In Wisconsin, lawmakers are debating a proposed change to state law that would weaken tenure protections at the University of Wisconsin system’s schools. If it passes, faculty could be terminated whenever “such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision.” Twenty-one scholarly associations, including the American Historical Association, the Association of College & Research Libraries and the Modern Language Association, denounced this effort for its threat to shared governance and academic freedom. And, to be sure, those are threats not to be minimized. In the age of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” academic freedom is under siege.
Little is being said, however, about the law’s explicitly stated purpose: to pave the way for the elimination of faculty appointments in fields that simply do not seem worth continued investment, not because a faculty member holds an unpopular or controversial opinion but because he or she teaches in a currently unpopular field. The very point of this proposal is to give the University of Wisconsin system the flexibility to reduce staffing in specific areas.
What departments and programs will be on the chopping block? Almost certainly they will be in the humanities. A consultant who works with university governing boards was quoted disparagingly about “some of these liberal arts colleges ... limping along with all this tenured faculty in German or some other language no one’s taking, and you can’t just move them into some other field, so you have to wait for them to retire.” Remove the obstacle of tenure, and voilà, instant budget savings. No need for those offending faculty to reach their natural retirement age. They are gone tomorrow.
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From New York’s University at Albany to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, to the University of Virginia (my graduate school alma mater), where President Teresa Sullivan was under pressure to reduce or eliminate programs in “obscure” fields such as German and classics, humanities departments are being cut or threatened. The narrative is now so deep-seated and widespread that its appearance as part of the Wisconsin conflict seems practically unremarkable. Friends don’t let friends major in the humanities, where majors as a percentage of all degree recipients are down by half since their peak in the 1960s. Big thriving universities don’t need them, either.
I am a dean at a liberal arts college and work directly with departments in the arts and humanities; also, my research is in an area of the humanities (medieval English literature) that would almost certainly be characterized by most people as “obscure.” Forty years ago, when I graduated from Stanford with a degree in English and classics, my father informed me sadly that I had “taken a vow of poverty.” Well, I’m still eating well and buying shoes, so I guess he was wrong.
I wish he were still around, and if he were I could show him a 2014 study from the Association of American Colleges and Universities that demonstrates that, during their peak earning years, graduates in the humanities and social sciences make more money than those who major in pre-professional fields. Another report, from the Association of American Medical Colleges, shows that humanities majors have higher acceptance rates to medical school than social science or natural science majors. But to focus solely on these indicators is already to concede that the chief measure of educational value can be found in the marketplace.
The humanities offer a larger and more significant value to our culture that is not captured in their pure utility. The humanities include the very fields that permit us to maintain an informed historical perspective on our lives. Without the humanities, there is no history. A German major will study Goethe; an Italian major Dante; a Russian major Tolstoy; an English major will learn the backgrounds to Chaucer (in my class) and Shakespeare (from the guy across the hall). A philosophy major will come to understand how the metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle helped set the stage for the Enlightenment. The academy has provided a welcoming home to these areas of study for hundreds of years, and they have survived under its protection. It’s worth thinking about what human culture would be without guardians who dedicate their time to preserving and passing on the lessons of history and the classics of art, music and literature.
It is commonplace to think of the modern academy (or the liberal arts) as “liberal.” But most teachers and scholars working in the humanities are not driven by a “liberal” agenda, leveraging the tools of post-structuralists to undermine truth claims, as some mockers like to imply. The “liberal” in liberal arts and sciences comes from the Latin word for free because, in their very nature, these are areas of study not constrained by the marketplace. For every literature professor who is pressing forward to put a literary tradition into the service of an identity claim, there are 10 who are patiently bearing witness to the great works of history and tenaciously grading their students’ freshman papers on Dante, Shakespeare or Wordsworth. It’s not that the humanities make a virtue of obscurity. They are true obscurity’s most committed enemies because they are preventing the past from being swallowed up in time.
Most “humanists” I know toil in the vineyards of classic texts trying to preserve the sacred traditions of the literary and historical cultures that they have given their lives to study. These are the individuals whose jobs will be on the line when tenure is dismantled. Despite common perception, the university is a profoundly conservative institution whose core value remains the preservation of the cultures and traditions of the past. Permit the utilitarian winds of today to blow unchecked, and tomorrow we will wake up with our cultural heritage in shreds.
To paraphrase John Donne, every German department’s death diminishes me.