In Defense Of College Humanities

February 15th, 2016

By Danika McClure

Last month, Kentucky governor, Matt Bevin, told reporters that he wants to reprogram the state’s higher education funds, offering more money to public universities which produce higher numbers of STEM graduates, and less to schools who produce liberal arts graduates. With this shift, the newly elected governor hopes to solve the state’s notable workforce problem.

“There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French literature majors,” Bevin told the Associated Press, when announcing his state spending proposal. “All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer.”

His proposal has come across to many as hypocritical, given that Bevin received an undergraduate degree in Japanese and East Asian studies from Washington and Lee University, a private, liberal arts institution. But beyond that obvious hypocrisy, there are many that believe that Governor Bevin has a brash misunderstanding of what makes a college education valuable.

At the center of the debate is the question of whether subsidized higher education benefits society solely for its vocational outcomes, as opposed to a less tangible, but potentially just as important factor of a well-rounded education that creates broad thinkers rather than simply preparing them for a specific job.

The escalating cost of education has led many to question whether or not they should attend college in the first place. As such, Americans are looking at their individual tuition ROI, and questioning the purpose of non-career oriented learning. As such, liberal arts education has been branded as a waste of time and money.

In an interview with EvoLLution, Boston University professor Jay Halfond speaks to the dangers of this line of thinking, stating, “In my view, it is dangerous and even corrupting to proceed down a path that shows that higher education ensures lucrative jobs soon after graduation. But we need to do a far better job demonstrating the relevance of a broad, general education, while linking what we teach to what is critical in the professional world.”

Education that is rooted in the liberal arts teaches students a variety of marketable skills, chief among them precise communication skills, appreciation of creative expression, the ability to think critically and consider historical and cultural perspectives.. By focusing on excluding funding for academic studies which don’t directly enhance workforce development, many believe Bevin shows a lack of understanding of the role of higher education in the American workforce.

“The objective of public universities should not be to produce predetermined numbers of particular types of majors but, rather, to focus on how to produce individuals who are capable of learning anything over the course of their lifetimes” Arizona State University President Michael Crow writes in an article on Slate. “Every college student should acquire thorough literacy in science and technology as well as the humanities and social sciences.  “

Through a liberal arts education, students become literate in a variety of different disciplines, which prepares them not only for a lifetime of learning, but additionally gives them the skills necessary to adapt in any given career path. Crow notes later that with the professional sector being so interconnected, students will need to learn a variety of skill sets in order to be able to adapt in a rapidly changing world.

The governor is correct in one matter: America is facing a STEM crisis, and the need to advance STEM education ought not be understated. Continued scientific discovery and technological advancement is imperative to America’s position in the global economy, and educators should emphasize the importance of increasing students’ literacy in these areas.

That said, there are other complex issues which confront our country, issues which will require expertise in more than just technology and science. America’s future also relies on people who are capable of engaging in civil discourse with world leaders, people who are able influence public policy, and people who create innovative art. These are skills which won’t necessarily be obtained by taking a course load full of only science and math classes.

“At the end of the day the objective of our universities, both public and private, should be to create teaching, learning, and discovery environments capable of producing learners of the highest caliber,” Crow added, emphasizing the importance of students learning the skills necessary to adapt to a variety of work environments, where they can “unleash and utilize their innate capacities and creative potential.”

Students who learn these skill sets will be able to apply them not only to careers in science and technology, but will allow them to establish new business enterprises, create social change, and stimulate creative innovation in a variety of sectors of our economy.

If universities stick to the mission of creating “learners of the highest caliber”, the next wave of economic innovation might come from a French literature major.

Danika McClure is a writer and musician from the northwest who sometimes takes a 30 minute break from feminism to enjoy a tv show. You can follow her on twitter @sadwhitegrrl