by Bruce Dunlavy
(My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

Every new academic year brings more examples of how a college education is not what it once was and – call me an elitist if you like – what it should be. I’ve posted curmudgeonly complaints before about the decline in academic and intellectual rigor at the university level. Recently, though, in a corner of the Great Lakes area, a new and disturbing idea has been loosed. The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point announced a plan to eliminate majors in nearly all humanities and social sciences. Apparently they do not provide enough job-specific training to attract a sufficient number of tuition-paying students, and thus can no longer economically justify their continued existence.

We’ve heard precursors to this before. Just to recap, for quite a few years it has been de rigueur to identify college as the second part of The American Dream (after home ownership). A college education has been presumed to guarantee a comfortable life in the middle class, and to be the necessary entry card for the contest to rise above the middle class.

It used to be that a high school graduate could achieve those things, but that is no longer the case. Now, it is said, one must go to college. Even many trade school occupations – from plastic blow-molding to building construction now feature at least a two-year degree. Most Enormous State Universities provide four-year degrees in narrow trade fields, such as Florida International University’s bachelor’s degree in (alcoholic) Spirits Management. Ivy League bastion Columbia University offers a Master’s Degree in Construction Management. That is not a bad thing per se, but it is disturbing for another reason.

This frightening turn in American higher education – universities re-inventing themselves as trade schools – results from more than just the increasing complexity of what used to be manual-labor jobs and the resultant specialization.

The difference this time around is not what has been added, but what has been taken away. For the first time since Latin and Greek were dropped as requirements a hundred years ago, traditional instruction is endangered. Until recently, one major aim of education remained, though in an attenuated form – the acquisition of a body of knowledge that could provide insight in multiple and varied circumstances.

That is gone. Students are told what to memorize, are tested on it, and then flush it from their minds, never to be thought of again unless it directly relates to their job. Higher education is now job training. Instead of learning how to think and apply a breadth of knowledge to a changing world, college students are taught job-specific skills, just as they would be in barber school.

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Most universities still require a modicum of study in what they call “core curriculum.” An English course is required, along with perhaps a math course, a history course, a science course. Usually these are dumbed-down versions designed to provide a check-off. One student I know satisfied his history-and-government requirement with a course called “History of the Beatles.” English is frequently General Writing, a course to help students put together a readable sentence so they can write a business proposal or a technology project plan.

The decline in attention to the traditional fields of the social sciences, humanities, and other liberal-arts disciplines is a response to the college-as-trade-school phenomenon. The ubiquitous question “What are you going to do with that?” presupposes that one who majors in philosophy has no professional career option other than hanging out a shingle that reads, “John Doe, Philosopher. Also lawns mowed.”

Irrespective of the actual usefulness of people who have studied philosophy in depth – that is, people who can understand what constitutes sound reasoning or evaluate the responsibilities of individuals and societies – there is nothing that prohibits a philosophy major from being able to learn anything else. It is not like Engineering, where a student’s schooling is so narrow that s/he is unsuited for many other fields. An English, history, or economics major can use the skills learned in pursuit of those subjects to acquire other skills, and s/he can be that much better at them for having studied his/her initial subject.

It was bad enough when most college students were put into programs that do not require them to study the intellectual basics with any significant depth. It was bad enough when Michigan State University eliminated its major in Classics (yet it does provide a course called “Surviving the Coming Zombie Apocalypse”). Now things have taken an even worse turn.

Wisconsin used to have a university system that was the envy of other States. The “Wisconsin Idea,” articulated in 1905, identified the purpose of the State university system with benefitting the lives of everyone (“to seek the truth [and] to improve the human condition”). A few years ago, Governor Scott Walker tried to sneak a reassignment of this purpose into a budget bill. Walker wanted to redefine the aim of higher education as “to meet the State’s workforce needs.” His attempt was discovered and shot down by the legislature, but not his notion that education is for creating workers with the specific technological skills that employers say they are seeking. That lived on.

On March 5, 2018, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point announced a plan to eliminate majors in English, History, Political Science, Philosophy, Spanish, German, French, Sociology, Geography, Geoscience, Art, American Studies, and Music Literature, while adding or expanding more skill-based technical majors such as Marketing, Aquaponics, and Conservation Law Enforcement. Students in the liberal arts were naturally upset, but it is hard to generate public support for fields that have always had to justify their utility, are ridiculed by the technology apologists as “Arts and Crafts” or “Hearts and Flowers,” and are perceived as having no direct link to jobs other than teaching.

Aha. There’s the really bad part. The liberal arts are perceived not to have a direct link to jobs other than teaching. One might say that it is not a tragic loss to education or society if students not planning to teach have to major in something “useful.” Even if they are no longer getting degrees in English or History or Classics, they can still study them. They can still learn from them.

Or can they? Wisconsin-Stevens Point has fired the first salvo in what promises to end in all-out war on the “useless, unmarketable,” liberal arts. Surely, there will be many more colleges and universities following that path. Not enough students are majoring in those subjects, so in this “run-it-like-a-business” atmosphere it will become an unacceptable economic burden on the universities to continue them.

But if you can’t get a degree in a subject, you can’t teach it. If there are no students with majors in history or political science, there can be no students getting admitted to graduate degree programs in those fields. The current generation of students in the humanities and social sciences may be the last ever to teach them at the university level. And when they are gone, higher education will be gone. It will be merely higher training.

[Update: As of academic year 2021-22, UW-SP has partially followed through with its plan to eliminate majors. A list of that university’s current major/minor programs can be found here.]