The Liberal Arts and the Meaning of a University

The claim that cutting back on certain liberal arts majors means that an institution cannot be university makes assumptions that are worth examining, writes Greg Summers.

April 2, 2018
 
 
University of Wisconsin Stevens Point

How can you be a university without a major in history?

We field this kind of question frequently at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. In March, we released curricular recommendations designed to repair our budget and stabilize enrollment. The proposal, Point Forward, called for the elimination of numerous majors in the traditional liberal arts, a greater emphasis on career-focused programs and the reimagining of our core liberal arts curriculum.

Since then, we have received a flood of messages from students, faculty members, alumni and scholarly organizations across the country. Some of them ask about process, wondering why we made recommendations suddenly and without stakeholder input. In fact, we discussed these issues for years. Others suggest there must be alternatives to eliminating underenrolled majors. I wish there were; we have tried nearly everything else. A small but growing number of people express sympathy with our dilemma, placing responsibility on the decades-long erosion of public investment in higher education. They are correct.

Set aside such issues for the moment. More interesting are the numerous messages wondering how we can be a university without majors in the traditional liberal arts. Are we not becoming a trade school, abandoning enrichment of the mind in favor of training in workplace skills?

These perceptions result from misunderstanding. Far from eliminating liberal arts disciplines, our proposal aims only at full majors. In fact, we are fighting to preserve as much as 80 percent of our faculty and curriculum in these areas -- and not just through general education but in refocused majors and minors with upper-level courses offering genuine opportunities for deep engagement in the liberal arts. Equally important, our baccalaureate degrees in natural resources, health, business, education and the performing arts -- the majority of degrees we offer -- are hardly narrow or technical.

But set this aside, too. Implied in the claim that “abandoning the liberal arts” means we “cannot be a university” are assumptions worth examining. Most students at UW Stevens Point do not choose to major in the traditional liberal arts disciplines. In fact, many universities already do not offer some of these programs. Within the University of Wisconsin System alone, four universities lack full majors in philosophy, three in sociology and four in Spanish. One of the founding tenets of the UW System was the idea that each campus would have a distinct program array defined by its select mission. If our current proposal takes this concept seriously, do we really cease to be a university?

Reading these comments as an environmental historian, I’m reminded of American attitudes toward wilderness. Few people choose to live in the wild, and most visit only rarely. True wilderness is uncomfortable and the Wi-Fi is terrible. Instead, most Americans seem content just knowing that wilderness is there, a notion that celebrates a romanticized frontier that never existed. Similarly, the implicit message from some of our critics is: it’s OK if your students major in finance, health science, and resource management; we just need to know that a philosophy major is there. This feeling, too, derives from false nostalgia -- specifically, for the idea that regional public universities can be smaller versions of research institutions. During the 1950s and 1960s, an aberrational moment in higher education when students and funding were plentiful, institutions like UW Stevens Point could afford to launch majors in the traditional liberal arts. Today, everything is different.

The inability to acknowledge this reality is deeply rooted in academic culture. Take the numerous condemnations we received from scholarly organizations asserting that without majors in their respective liberal arts disciplines, our university will lack something fundamental. “Elimination of the history program,” reads the letter from the Organization of American Historians, “means the elimination of a university’s capacity to teach … critical life skills.” Really? No one would dispute that every graduate should have meaningful courses in history. As the letter noted, “History is the discipline dedicated to studying the past … [and is] essential to navigating rapid economic transformation, international crises, epidemic disease, political gridlock and myriad other modern challenges.” I agree. I want every student in our College of Natural Resources to have a course in environmental history. But to conflate this with needing to preserve a history major seems disingenuous.

Here we encounter the elephant in the room in our current dialogue about the liberal arts and the meaning of a university. If the majority of students in universities today encounter these traditional disciplines, not as majors but only through general-education programs, should we not direct our attention there? The need for new approaches to general education has long been evident, and many institutions have sought meaningful change. Yet many such efforts, including ours, have run aground due to structural impediments rooted in our conflation of the narrow role of liberal arts majors with the much broader and more vital role of these same disciplines, a dynamic that stifles curricular innovation.

Too many general-education programs rely on courses that are introductions to liberal arts majors, even as they enroll primarily nonmajors. This double duty leaves the majority of students wondering why they must take such classes and hoping only to “get them out of the way.” Too many general education programs spark battles over department “turf,” elevating the protection of student credit hours, budgets and faculty positions above thoughtful consideration of student needs in shaping curricula. As a result, too many general education programs have little purposeful cohesion and little relevance to the majority of students. Given that most universities assign one-third of the courses required to complete a baccalaureate degree to these core curricula -- and given the tuition we charge -- is it any wonder that students resent the cost of higher education?

Our aim at UW Stevens Point is to fix this problem, to look beyond a set of majors that serve roughly 6 percent of our students and ask how the disciplines of the liberal arts can better educate everyone. Do we lose something in this equation? Absolutely. The loss is real and should be debated in the context of urging greater public investment in higher education. Will we cease to be a university? Of course not. In fact, if we succeed in making the liberal arts more relevant and available to the majority of students who never major in these disciplines, we will be a stronger university indeed.

Bio

Greg Summers is provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point.

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