It’s not a secret that our institution is coping with a budget crisis. This is a very stressful situation for all. Money, and the lack thereof, often drives what is considered to be important in education. When cuts have to be made, discussions emerge regarding what do our students need to know, what will make them better prepared for their future careers? Sadly, it is often liberal arts that takes the biggest hit. Liberal arts is frequently misunderstood. It does not exist to make you “liberal”; its mission is to provide a broad-based education that helps an individual make informed decisions.
This past week I read that an institution in Wisconsin wants to cut 13 programs, the majority of these housed in what would traditionally be a liberal arts college. They want to cut majors in history, English, political science and foreign languages, to name a few. Some of you who read this may think, “What’s the big deal? We don’t need thousands of history majors in the world!”’ Even the Simpsons has made fun of English PhDs, insinuating that they all work at Barnes & Noble.
The logic, however, does not work. There seems to be an assumption that you can learn a skill and then use that skill for the rest of your life to do the same thing FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. This type of logic assumes that you will be static and you will not grow as a human, that you will not come in contact with people who are different from you, and that you will not explore new career possibilities. In essence, it assumes that your world will never change. But we live in a state of constant flux. Every time you meet somebody new, that is a new point on your timeline and a possible new path that you could be taking. Every time you learn a new piece of information, that information could be useful for you in that moment or at some point in the future. In short, we can’t say what will be useful to us in our futures because we can’t predict our futures.
With the possibility of sounding like your parents, it was not that way when I came to college. When I started SEMO, I did not expect to be trained for a job. I expected that I would be educated about many ideas and that a job would eventually come. What was important was the information that I was acquiring. I came from a background of poverty. I was first generation. And yet, I still did not expect that this institution would train me for a job. I expected that it would give me the tools to explore my job possibilities. I moaned and whined some when I had to take classes that weren’t interesting to me, but I knew that I could take something worthwhile and usable from each course that I took. No knowledge is useless. Some of the best courses I took at this institution had nothing to do with my major, but they opened my eyes to world movements, facts, and theories that my major could never offer me.
Universities were started to build good citizens. That’s why most institutions have a liberal arts program, because it builds on those soft skills that are needed to be good citizens, and truthfully, good employees and leaders. Years ago when I was chair of Faculty Senate, we had a meeting with Commissioner Russell from the Missouri Department of Higher Education. I told him that it felt as if liberal arts were under attack. What he told me stuck with me. He said that what business leaders told him is that they find many people who have the training to do certain jobs. That is something that they can quantify on a checklist. What these candidates seemed to be lacking were the soft skills, the ability to engage others in conversation, the ability to solve problems, the ability to communicate well in spoken and written form. That’s why many business leaders complain that they have positions that are not being filled because their candidates don’t possess these qualities. If you have no sense of history, you can’t fully understand your present. If you cannot communicate ideas to those around you, it’s difficult to accomplish any task. If you can’t interact with other human beings in a civil way, group work is almost impossible to achieve. If you have no prior knowledge to anything outside your discipline, you can’t make an informed decision about anything outside your discipline. I have often found that the knowledge I acquire outside my discipline actually can help inform my discipline. It gives me new tools to approach my discipline from another perspective.
I was one of those who bemoaned the loss of the UI upper level courses. These were classes that brought such interesting topics to our students, topics that went far beyond the basics. They also provided a viable means of receiving credit for study abroad, something that is now almost impossible to achieve now that there is no course attached to it. I worry that the loss of the possibility of using UI343, the Transcultural Experience, as an upper level UI course has essentially caused the demise of short-term study abroad. But I digress.
So I guess this post is simply a way to ask you to consider your own future and your own attitudes toward college. Ask yourself why are you here? What can you take away from your classes? What should determine what is “useful” and what is not? Silo culture is a dangerous one. It limits our thinking and places us in a box that confines our possibilities. In the end you should be prepared for whatever comes your way. What you perceive you will be doing in 5 years may not be your reality at all. What tools do you need to be flexible, to be adaptable and to contribute to your own community in an informed way?