What happens to Colleges when market economics hit home

Recently I read an interesting article by a college advisor on his perspective of current trends in the universities and colleges.  “It’s Time to Worry When Colleges Erase Humanities Departments” by Willard Dix.   I found this a very thoughtful and reasoned article.  With all the emoting going on in the news and social media it was refreshing to hear a reasoned argument.  One that doesn’t play to the lowest base emotions and manipulations in order to guilt someone to buying into the writer’s point of view.  So with the same respect I wanted to respond to Mr Dix’s arguments.  For those who haven’t read the article the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point is proposing removing a number of the humanities programs and it sounds like the associated departmental structure supporting full liberal arts degrees in these areas of study.  They are replacing these programs with a number of science, economics, finance and management type programs that students can actually earn a living from instead of becoming a Barista with a Phd in Philosophy or History.  For this action he suggests the University is becoming nothing more than a trade school.  I apparently come from a different generation and a different philosophy.  My folks didn’t have the money to pay $20,000 for a 4 year in-state degree that wouldn’t provide me a source of income to make a living without depending on the government.  This is just practical common sense and actually reflects what most people are finding out after a couple generations earning degrees in the humanities.  The college students who earned those degrees now have children beginning their college experience and I would say, based on the market direction, they are guiding their children towards practical degrees and colleges who provide them.  Mary Bowman, professor of English, can lament that she or members of her educational committee weren’t consulted about the change but if the University doesn’t change to meet the needs of its customers it will fail and Professor Bowman will not have a job at this institution anyway. 

Mr Dix does not recommend that Colleges and Universities ignore the market forces but instead describes it as “wrong-headed” to base the decision of what programs to keep based on their ability to generate revenue.  The only economy where this ideology would actually work is the one we all grew up with on “Star Trek” where mankind had actually reached a level of enlightenment where we could actually defend ourselves militarily from a “science & exploratory” vessel without the use of currency.  Needless to say I don’t think we’ve reached that level of enlightenment yet.  If I understand Mr Dix’s argument correctly, he suggests that conflating a major with job is where the administrators of the Universities are setting a “dangerous precedent”.  By inquiring of those recipients of the philosophy, anthropological and similar degrees we would be very mistaken to say the major defined the job.  To this I would have to agree but then I received a BS in Mechanical Engineering and a MS in Mineral Economics so I do equate the major with the job and I’ve earned a very good living having done so.  After 45 years in the business world I also recognize several very critical aspects to the educational experience which I don’t think have been given enough emphasis by those arguing in favor of the pure Humanities and Social Science degrees.  In an “enlightened” world, which we all seem to strive for, there is a place for the Philosopher to discuss ideas from different perspectives or the Anthropologist to ponder the ebbs and flows of society and I believe this alternative thought process is good for all of us so we don’t look at life in a monochromatic movie setting.  The problem, however, comes when this is no longer balanced out with the practicality of life, it becomes the way of life.  We must pay for these degrees not only with money but with an even more precious commodity, namely time.  A young person will never get those 4 years back and will end up spending another 4 years on a degree or trade to earn a living.  Sometimes gaining knowledge for knowledge’s sake alone is a noble thing, but usually only for those who are independently wealthy.  If you’re not, then someone else must pay for it out of their resources which overlooks another very valuable lesson.  That of being humble and the sacrifice which comes from giving to others.  If you depend on someone else’s generosity how do you learn the joy of giving and being generous when you are always on the receiving end.  Not everyone does this, but take a look at the riots on colleges and universities over the last year and tell me these students aren’t feeling entitled, with a straight face.

Having a degree in a major that leads to a specific job does have its advantages, for some it is more advantageous than for others, in other words some folks advance further than others.  Many factors come into play but after working with so many engineers over the years I found a very interesting common denominator amongst the best of them.  The best engineers, the ones that were able to find the best answers to problems and were more successful in their companies, were the ones that seemed to be well versed in the humanities.  Whether this was from personal study outside of school or from a more formal university setting wasn’t the deciding factor.  The important factor in the quality of the answer was the engineer’s ability to think outside the box and having that exposure to the humanities makes the engineer see problems from different perspectives.  This is the real benefit of the humanities, no matter what the degree is, to round us out as people.  It is an absolute necessity, I believe, when understanding where someone else stands and why they come to the conclusions they come to.  Without this perspective there is no team building and when it comes to solving problems several minds are always better than any single minded solution.  Teams should not, however, be confused with committees. 

For the last half century we have seen a steady progression from attending college to earn a degree that a corporation can immediately parley into salaried position, to earning a philosophical degree in African Studies or women’s studies which do not translate into useful corporate positions.  Furthermore, we are hearing more and more of universities needing to create “safe spaces” for their students to escape from some of the alternative ideas expressed.  Speakers now have to provide their own security because the mere fact they express ideas other than what some people want to hear will create a riot.  Speakers are now shouted down for expressing contrary ideas.  A lifetime of humanitarian service or exemplary governmental work can be thrown out because someone has the temerity to live their life according to the mores of the time instead of the mores of the next century.  

The current focus on humanities seem to have taken us away from creative thinking and respectful debate in the market place of ideas.  We find ourselves back in the “monochromatic movie set”.  What has been tried in the colleges universities to make us better as individuals and as a society is not working so it’s time to try something different and the schools like the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point are making the logical first step.  I would only encourage them to include the histories and philosophies in their overall programs, but I agree with the idea that the students need to be prepared for business with a strong minor in life as it has been expressed over the centuries.  Absolutely, encourage the study of humanities & social sciences but not as a means to an end.

2 thoughts on “What happens to Colleges when market economics hit home

  1. Hey, Slick Willy..I agree with you. To be schooled only in a trade without the humanities studies is not a complete education. It will not produce a well-rounded individual. We all need to stay involved with society and be able to interact, no matter what our trade.

    Keep on writing!!!


    1. Thanks, right now it seems students believe they can make a viable living with only a history degree and the reality the educators are not telling them they’ll still have to work harder making a living with the only advantage of having a college degree. In a competitive market the focused graduate will get the job over the general ed graduate because they get immediate returns w/ less training. We need to change the message from “trade school” comments to well rounded graduate and eliminate most of the Humanities / Social Sciences degrees or make it so demanding only very highly motivated (read that non-college-party team) students can actually get a degree. Maybe then we can get real journalists instead of the batch we have now. (Dream on huh!)


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