Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Why We Need History MAJORS

Some of you may recall my post last week about trying to recruit history majors at Messiah College. I received a lot of feedback from this piece.  Mark Cheathem and Aaron Cowan had insightful things to say in the comments section (check them out), but I also received a lot of private e-mails from professors who did not feel comfortable writing publicly about the struggles they are facing in trying to defend the humanities on their campuses.

I don't want to be too dramatic here, but I am starting to think that we may be at a turning point in American higher education as it relates to the humanities and the liberal arts more broadly.  (Some say that turning point is long passed and we have now fallen into the abyss.  I tend to be a bit more optimistic--at least for now).  This might be an obvious statement, but let me explain:

Traditional liberal arts colleges are starting to adjust to changing times, but they are still holding the line, unwilling to abandon their missions and identities as institutions that celebrate liberal learning above all other kinds of learning. I think historians at these colleges--Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, Davidson, Bates, Holy Cross, Richmond, Union, Dickinson, Wheaton, Hillsdale, Ursinus, and Westmont--can feel relatively and comparatively safe, at least for the time being, about the future of the discipline at their institutions.

It is the small comprehensive colleges with liberal arts missions that need to worry.  These colleges have split identities.  They have "core" or "general education" programs rooted in the liberal arts and they have liberal arts and humanities majors, but their professional programs (nursing, engineering, etc...) attract the most students.  Many of these schools have small endowments so their survival depends on tuition dollars. When a college's livelihood relies so heavily on getting students in the seats, admissions offices and administrators may not care about the ratio of history majors to sports management majors.

So how does a comprehensive college continue to keep a liberal arts or humanities core when the market is bringing them nurses and petroleum engineers?

At the risk of being too simplistic, it seems that a college can respond to this dilemma in one of two ways:

1.  College administrators will accept the reality of the marketplace and adjust accordingly.  

Since most of their students come to college to pursue professional majors, they will make the natural (and perhaps logical) decision to strengthen undergraduate professional programs at the expense of the liberal arts.  In other words, they will invest money and rhetoric into professional programs in order to attract as many students as possible.  This approach is necessary to keep the ship afloat.

Colleges that take this approach do not abandon the liberal arts.  Most colleges cannot do away with the liberal arts and still remain true to liberal arts missions embedded in founding documents.  But the liberal arts and humanities courses can be relegated to a position in the college where they are little more than courses necessary for the granting of baccalaureate degrees.  History, English, and philosophy departments become service departments.  Heck, even the Fashion Institute Technology in New York City has full-time historians.

2.  College administrators can take seriously the fact that they preside over an institution with a dual identity and thus support the liberal arts side of the college through the building of robust liberal arts and humanities majors (as opposed to merely courses). 

If a college takes this approach, the administration will not miss the opportunity to talk--to the larger public and to faculty and staff-- about the liberal arts mission of the college. The administration will invest in this mission in terms of strengthening majors and attracting top students to study these fields.  They will be proactive about promoting and strengthening the college's liberal arts mission rather than passively sitting back in hopes that the liberal arts majors will simply show up each Fall. Institutions that take this approach may have to challenge market trends and make a compelling case for the importance of liberal arts majors. Institutions that take this approach will make sure that liberal arts and humanities departments remain strong. (In terms of resources/budgets and faculty lines).  Institutions that are successful in this regard will benefit from a collection of liberal arts and humanities majors on their campuses who will challenge their fellow students to think differently and deeply about the world around them.

Unfortunately, most of the colleges I have visited are choosing option #1. As a result, morale among humanities professors seems to be at an all-time low.  What might it take to move in the direction of option #2?  Sometimes I wonder if we are still willing to even entertain this question.