News & Politics

Does the Right Want to Do Away with the Humanities Altogether?

A Wisconsin university is considering eliminating 13 majors. Scott Walker must be delighted.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Since the turn of the 20th century, the University of Wisconsin has embarked on a "search for truth" in order to "serve and stimulate society." This philosophy is known as the Wisconsin Idea, and it's literally written into the state code. (The progressive governor and senator Robert M. La Follette Sr. was among its greatest champions). During budget negotiations in 2015, however, Republican Governor Scott Walker attempted to purge this language from the university's mission statement. No longer would the school "improve the human condition"; instead it would simply "meet the state's workforce needs."

That effort failed amid a stiff backlash from Democratic officials and the public, but a new proposal could help realize Walker's anti-enlightenment vision. According to the Washington Post, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point is considering eliminating 13 majors from the humanities and social sciences. In their place, the university would provide programs offering "clear career pathways," believing they might help remedy a $4.5 million deficit. 

"Students and faculty members have reacted with surprise and concern to the news, which is being portrayed by the school’s administration as a path to regain enrollment and provide new opportunities to students," the Post's Valerie Strauss reports. "Critics see something else: a waning commitment to liberal arts education and a chance to lay off faculty under new rules that weakened tenure."

If UWSP truly wants to prepare its students for the workforce, eliminating concentrations like English, history and philosophy seems ill-advised. As co-authors Morton Schapiro and Gary Saul Morson argue in their new book, "Cents and Sensibility," an education in humanities may provide the greatest form of job security in an increasingly automated world. Schapiro laid out his case in a recent interview with AlterNet:

Human capital skills really pay off in the labor force. If you’re worried about artificial intelligence, automation, robotics, outsourcing to cheaper providers in Hyderabad or other places, you’d better be able to understand people. I’m a labor economist and I talk about forecasting what human capital skills are going to pay off in 10 years. Narrow technical training is becoming rapidly less valued in the marketplace. Understanding people, being culturally sensitive—those are the things that are going to keep you employed. Having only narrow technical skills is just a recipe to be outsourced.

Proposals like the University of Wisconsin's are just one component of a much larger conservative project to radically reimagine American higher education. A new bill wending its way through the halls of Congress would not only allow religious universities to prohibit same-sex relationships but let student groups discriminate against classmates of another faith. If that weren't sufficiently odious, the legislation would also prevent universities from punishing fraternities and sororities that refuse to admit members of the opposite sex. 

"The push away from liberal arts and toward workplace skills is championed by conservatives who see many four-year colleges and universities as politically correct institutions that graduate too many students without practical job skills—but with liberal political views," notes the Post's Strauss.

UWSP students rallied Wednesday at a demonstration called "Save Our Majors." The school's full statement can be read here.

H/T Washington Post

Jacob Sugarman is a managing editor at AlterNet.