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The Real Humanities Crisis Is Happening at Public Universities

You’ve probably heard several times already that the humanities are in “crisis.” The crisis is real. But recent reports on it do not address the particular challenges, and strengths, of the public research university, places like our own institution, the University of Illinois, and other Big Ten schools, or Virginia, or the UC system—campuses where the greatest preponderance of humanities instruction and research takes place. Public universities have undergone a sea change in the past quarter century, as state funding has been steadily, and at times precipitously, withdrawn. Universities, in turn, have come to value especially those programs that can generate revenue through alumni donations, external grants, or tuition. Under this new business model, humanities programs suffer in general and small departments, like classics and philosophy, find themselves perpetually under threat, no matter what their historical significance to higher learning. 

Indeed several campuses have closed the doors on entire programs. In 2010, SUNY Albany threatened to end programs in French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theater, though later retreated from the plan. Two years later, the University of Pittsburgh suspended graduate admissions to German, classics, and religious studies. These are two prominent examples of a national trend stealthily proceeding apace. The crisis is also international: U.K. universities have faced steep funding cuts leading, for example, to the closure of Middlesex University’s philosophy department; and just this year Canada’s University of Alberta suspended admission to 20 humanities programs.

Even plans to restore some funding to public higher education appear to be mounted in ways that may well accelerate the marginalization of the humanities. President Obama recently announced his goal of tying federal funding of colleges to affordability, an entirely laudable attempt to combat skyrocketing tuition rates on public campuses. But as these measures have been articulated thus far, affordability will be assessed according to tuition cost, the debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students attending. On one level, that plays to good old American pragmatism, but the side-effects are predictable: larger class sizes; shrinking of programs that do not lead immediately to high earnings; more in the way of cost-effective online offerings, or hybrids of online and classroom instruction (President Obama has already signaled his affinity for online courses); and artificially assigned grades leading to artificially high matriculation rates. This vision not only marginalizes non-technical fields, but also makes all the more elite and privileged the kind of teaching on which the humanities depend: small groups engaged in sustained dialogue between faculty and students, which so many colleges and universities still trumpet as one of their chief sources of appeal. 

Two simple correctives might be applied, neither of which would add to the cost of the program that President Obama proposes. First, instead of emphasizing Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), why not reward those campuses with the most favorable faculty to student ratios? Liberal arts colleges routinely advertise their faculty to student ratios. Why shouldn’t public institutions similarly compare themselves? Second, let’s reward colleges spending more in the classroom and less in the boardroom. Otherwise, we will simply incentivize corner-cutting in instruction while continuing to throw quarter-of-a-million dollar salaries at the Second Associate Vice Provost of Nothing in Particular. So well known is the administrative bloat of public universities that the federal Department of Education already keeps statistics on it. A judicious person would investigate the administrative costs of a charity before signing over a large donation. Why shouldn’t the Department of Education do likewise in identifying schools devoting the greatest proportion of their resources to things that benefit students?

The reasons for applying such correctives are clear. Many people make eloquent cases for the importance of humanistic learning and argue cogently for its vital role in civic life. A democracy can only be as energetic as the minds of its citizens, and the questions fundamental to the humanities are also fundamental to a thoughtful life (What is the good? the nature of beauty? Do we need God?). What does it mean for a culture if these means of grappling with human experience become unavailable on public university campuses but remain available on private ones? Will that not make even more prominent key divisions among us? At stake is not only the civic benefit of the humanities, but the civic benefit of making non-instrumental learning broadly available. Do we really want to become a society where public institutions focus on technical training and elite schools catering to the wealthy have a monopoly on cultivating imagination?

At key moments in its past, the U.S. chose not to be such a society. The first Morrill Act in 1862 established this nation’s land-grant universities and made crystal clear its intention of promoting “liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” The GI Bill was also transformative in broadening access to higher education and, in the same stroke, expanding access to a middle-class life. As Edward Humes describes it in his 2006 book, Over Here: How the GI Bill Transformed the American Dream, the bill made possible the educations of “fourteen Nobel Prize winners, three Supreme Court justices, three presidents, a dozen senators, two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, 238 000 teachers, 91 000 scientists, 67 000 doctors, 450 000 engineers, 240 000 accountants, 17 000 journalists, 22 000 dentists,” not to mention tens of thousands writers and artists, but, most importantly of all, millions of citizens who brought the benefit of their liberal arts educations to all their endeavors, even their business ones. Our own history teaches us that opening the doors of opportunity in all fields of education enriches us as a society.

These transformative pieces of legislation also remind us that the public university professoriate has an obligation to adapt its practices to the evolving needs of the public. A new deal for the humanities needs to reimagine institutional structures on three fronts: 1) it must provide stable sources of funding; 2) it must allow humanities programs to generate their own means of evaluating learning outcomes and program viability, not necessarily based on generating grants (which they cannot do) or watering down curriculum to fill undergraduate seats (which they ought not do); and 3) it must marshal its resources to develop new models of the single-subject academic department, or dispense entirely with this limiting institutional model that was not conceived with the humanities in mind.

Knowledge is always revising its organization, and we have held too long to the single-subject major that has made so many undergraduate curricula stale and intellectually narrow. Such an artificially defined specialization of programs serves little purpose, pedagogical or otherwise; that employers see humanities education as important does not mean that they are eager to hire majors in philosophy or anthropology. We must also be responsive to the fact that the cost of higher education makes it impossible for many students to focus on one humanities subject to the exclusion of all else. The single-subject model inevitably favors large departments like English and history, and almost as inevitably compromises smaller ones. While those two departments are shrinking with the rest, they are doing so at a slower rate and have tended not to be shuttered completely. Many campuses are thus spiraling toward their Anglo-American and modern emphases, eroding the breadth of the liberal arts from within.

We hope that a new deal for the humanities would articulate an idea of the university for our time, one setting itself firmly against the current retooling of our public universities as technical colleges. That conversation is going forward, in one domain or another, to one extent or another in many places. We also propose dialogue on the painfully banal terrain of university administration. At present, university bureaucracies simply do not have mechanisms for valuing the contributions of the humanities, from their means of program evaluation to their standards for appointing new faculty. Partnering with creative and right-minded administrators to fill those institutional voids must be high on our agenda. A focus on practical proposals might lead to productive ways of building frameworks that secure vibrant and robust humanities offerings for twenty-first century students. The alternative is effectively to abandon one of this nation’s most noble traditions: that of providing educational opportunities at all levels and in all subjects to ever-broadening segments of society. What a shame that would be.

Gordon Hutner is Director of the Trowbridge Initiative in American Cultures at the University of Illinois and the editor of American Literary History. His most recent book is What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960. Feisal G. Mohamed (@FGMohamed) is a professor at the University of Illinois. His most recent book is Milton and the Post-Secular Present: Ethics, Politics, TerrorismThey have organized the conference "A New Deal for the Humanities," to be held on September 18.