The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Wisconsin is trying to segregate higher education into the haves and have-nots

The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point held a forum on March 15 to discuss a proposal to drop 13 majors in the humanities and social sciences. (Video: University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point)
Placeholder while article actions load

Paula M. Krebs is the executive director of the Modern Language Association.

Here’s the takeaway: If you are a working-class student, a first-generation college student, someone without the means to get you to a private college or to a public research university, then you should be channeled into job training.

This latest, and most frightening, move to segregate higher education into the haves and the have-nots is coming from, not surprisingly, Gov. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin.

The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point is like most regional public comprehensive universities, primarily serving students within commuting distance, many of whom hold at least part-time jobs while they pursue their degrees and most of whom will take longer than four years to complete them.

A new proposal from that university’s administration would eliminate the opportunity for its students to major in English, art, history, French, political science, geography and other majors while increasing opportunities in aquaculture, fire science, geographic information science, marketing and other non-humanities fields.

The message could not be clearer. Working-class and middle-class Wisconsin students should use their college years to focus narrowly on skills that will plug them into existing holes in the state’s workforce. The children of the state’s upper-middle class and rich, on the other hand, who have the opportunity to attend elite private colleges or public research universities, can spend four years discovering skills and knowledge that they can use in many different careers.

My daughter studies geography. She loves the information-science aspect of her work — that is, creating maps on computers. But she also really values the larger framework offered by her major: courses in human geography, cultural contexts, languages and history. The data analysis and mapping skills are great, but she doesn’t want a tech job. She wants a career in which the tech is in service of something larger — something that reflects the values and perspectives she’s forming in her liberal arts degree.

Part of Stevens Point’s failure to stand behind humanities and social sciences education is our own fault in the academy. For too long, we’ve taught our subjects as if their value were self-evident. We didn’t talk with our students about the range of skills and perspectives they were learning in addition to the course readings. They could be forgiven for thinking that all they learned in their Victorian Literature class was Victorian literature. They may have also learned to write, to work with feedback, to manage multi-part projects and to do public presentations, but we never pointed out how valuable those skills would be once they finished college.

Every university language or history or philosophy department can point to graduates who have gone on to terrific careers in business or social services or public service — but few of those graduates can articulate the ways what they did in class translated into skills for life and work.

When I was a dean, I met a CVS Health executive who pointed out many successful career paths that humanities majors had taken in his company, which is now much more than the neighborhood pharmacy. Few humanities advisers, however, would encourage their students to take a job as a floor manager at a local CVS. Most went right from college to graduate school to teaching and so have little acquaintance with the concept of the entry-level job. Unlike their counterparts in the business school, they rarely teach students that you might develop skills in one job and then work your way through a series of more challenging positions.

Likewise, we haven’t trained employers to look out for our majors. Once I talked to a manager at Cisco Systems, an IT and networking company, who had hired dozens of recent college grads to train as network engineers. He kept referring to them as “engineers.” I asked him whether any of them were English majors, and he said, “Oh, sure — we have history majors, English majors, lots of different majors.” What he looked for was an ability to solve problems and to understand individuals and cultures well enough to ask clients the right questions. When that employer next recruits on a college campus, I hope he will not ask for only “engineers.” I hope he will talk about the traits and qualities he wants — and I hope he understands better, after our conversation, that humanities majors cultivate exactly what he’s looking for.

We cannot, like Stevens Point would, limit liberal arts education to the elite and consign the rest of the country to more narrow vocational training. Advocates of the liberal arts, especially the humanities, must make clear why it is worth studying our subjects. And employers and policymakers must recognize, and speak up for, the education in careful research and analysis, in reading closely, in writing well, and in understanding languages and cultures that the arts and humanities bring to our citizens. And our workforce.

Read more on this topic:

Mitch Daniels: Health care isn’t our only ludicrously expensive industry

George F. Will: American higher education is a house divided

Satyan Linus Devadoss: A math problem for Pi Day

Fred Hiatt: We’re still paying for rich people to go to college. Why?

Peter McPherson: Our college students are changing. Why aren’t our higher education policies?