Oh, the humanities: Can these colleges help save tradition in higher education?

Several institutions are taking advantage of grant money to fortify programs that teach students essential skills.
By: | March 4, 2022
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The siege on the humanities in higher education has been well-documented over the past decade or more, from the cutting of degree programs and faculty to the shift among new students to STEM and other vocation-oriented fields.

In the past few weeks, the University of Northern Colorado has eliminated French, German and European studies; the University of Kansas has many humanities programs on the chopping block among dozens of trims to curriculum offerings; and the University of Nebraska at Kearney has halted its philosophy major.

Are they wisely following the lead of others that have abandoned struggling programs, or are they making a mistake? With budgets tightening, the decision may seem a no-brainer. But what they might lose in the process could be more harmful long term, namely the ability to impact students with skills they need more than ever – critical thinking, oral and written communication, historical perspective and the embrace of different views.

As the cuts go on, there has been a groundswell of support aimed at keeping them alive. The Andrew Mellon Foundation is pouring $16 million in grant money into a program called Humanities for All Times that will help a dozen liberal arts colleges forge new courses around social justice. And the Teagle Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) have handed out huge grant awards to 35 institutions that can uplift the humanities through general education.

“What is this effort all about? The house of our democracy is on fire,” said Andrew Delbanco, author and president of Teagle, referencing a quote from Columbia University lecturer Roosevelt Montas, during a panel discussion at the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ annual meeting. “It’s time for academia to acknowledge that we have been inadequate to the emergency. A very important part of our job is to prepare all students to become informed participants in democratic debate about hard questions, which tend to be timeless questions, such as individual versus group rights, responsibility versus freedom, greed versus ambition.”

The project from Teagle and NEH is called Cornerstone: Learning for Living and its mission is to take otherwise pedestrian gen ed offerings and turn them into challenging, thought-provoking courses around philosophy, the arts and literature – the very line items on the chopping blocks at some colleges. What can be gained are deeper discussions about government, empathy, and formative debate. Teagle says those are the soft skills that employers often covet but have struggled to find in job searches the past few years.

“Given the reality that interest in the specialized humanities is shriveling among undergraduates at every kind of campus, the only place that these needs can be met right now is in what we traditionally called general education, which I sometimes think might be better called essential education,” Delbanco said. “The fact is, on too many campuses, general education has been marginalized, trivialized, under respected, emptied of dignity and energy. We need to fix this problem.”


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In the Teagle and NEH program which was forged after a hugely successful model at Purdue University, both traditional and modern transformative texts form the core of learning in “gateway courses” for students. The fascinating second part is that the courses don’t live in the humanities bubble. Students must address technical problems that exist in fields such as STEM and business that need broader methods of inquiry. Their teachings help students better choose future paths and make more informed decisions in life.

“What the Cornerstone Initiative proposes is the notion of taking a rigorous liberal education and making it accessible to every student,” Montas said. “Part of the democratic crisis that we have been talking about has to do precisely with the fact that we have not taken seriously and aggressively this mission of making liberal education be mass education. There is a portion of the college curriculum, a portion of a student’s experience in college that ought to be dedicated not to professional training, not vocational, job-oriented training, but one that is concerned simply with cultivating humanity.”

Already, there are hugely successful examples of its implementation, leading with Purdue, whose Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts (CILA) certificate program not only has grown from 60 participants to 4,000 in five years but is hiring more faculty around it. At American University, thanks to a grant from Teagle and NEH, freshmen are given an introductory course on liberal education – they might read Frederick Douglass or Simone de Beauvoir – while Lincoln Scholars get a more intense curriculum that features Rousseau, Marx and Locke. But the big benefit is that these mostly politically focused students get a lesson in history

“Part of our function is to take students who want to do politics, and say, you really need to spend some time doing humanities courses,” said Tom Merrill, associate professor of government at American U. “So to back away from wanting to talk about contemporary events all the time, back to the humanities courses, back to the Literature Department, the philosophy department, the history department. There’s a hunger amongst the students, when they get into a class like that. They say, this is what I thought college was supposed to be like. The real incentive for faculty to do this is that they enjoy the work and faculty are hungry for working with other faculty on intellectual matters.”

At the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, professor David Fott said the institution has received a number of grants to help push out a section starting this fall for 25 students that it hopes to grow to 150 by the fall of 2024. They will explore a list of nine works and compare two of them, such as Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” with Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” It wants to explore a minor as well. He says faculty have been lured to teach these courses by stipends and retreats, which can build bonding.

At Stanford University, freshman students will be taking two quarters of a new civic requirement thanks to its Teagle grant – in the fall and winter there will be a shared syllabus around liberal education and citizenship. In the spring they’ll focus on global perspectives. Stanford’s pilot is 20-25 sections but it will be ramping up to 70 next year, for 1,000 students each quarter. They are being delivered by seminars, not lectures.

Onondaga Community College in New York, which has an extremely diverse population of students, has seen success in 100, 200 and honors courses thanks to its list of texts that students get to read in many disciplines – anthropology, history, philosophy, English, psychology, gender studies, Native American studies and world languages.

“One of my students commented that this is the only class that makes her come out of her bed in the morning, and another student said her favorite thing was that the class allowed for us to become enlightened with one another,” said Anisha Saxena, Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and Philosophy.