This is a letter to the editor in response to Reforming the Humanities.
In her recently published piece, “Reforming the Humanities,” Haley Hammerstrom calls for increases in financial support for humanities programs. However, the proposal she puts forth is far too focused on what these programs can do to buy into the dangerous market model that fashions an academic institution as a corporation, rather than a site for learning.
We have seen universities buy into this model for decades: increasing tuition costs to maximize profit; increasing class sizes to maximize efficiency; hushing up sexual assault cases to maintain enrollment; and underpaying faculty and staff that are key to keeping the university afloat. Hammerstrom goes on to conclude that the world we live in is governed by supply and demand, and this university market model is just a truth that we must accept. She says we must understand that when programs such as the humanities cannot play the game well enough, they will not survive much longer. But this is not our only option, and I urge everyone reading this to resist the notion that we must accept such a dismal reality.
Though I largely disagree with the solutions Hammerstrom dispenses, I do think she addresses a few important points. Many incoming students are turned off by the humanities programs, and students are having to pursue an education based on job security and salary potential. These are very serious and real issues, but where Hammerstrom goes wrong with her analysis is her refusal to address the root of these problems.
Students are not turned off by the humanities because they fail to deliver fruitful educations, they are turned off by the humanities because all our lives we are taught that productivity is the sole measure of our worth. The humanities do not need to offer more high-paying career paths, society needs to stop telling students that educations are for getting a job rather than learning. We do not need to be reforming the humanities, we need to be uprooting the entire system.
In response to a source in Hammerstrom’s article,* having a liberal arts education does not make someone “mediocre at all things.” I am studying biological sciences, and I have actually experienced quite the opposite: my peers who have never had to take a humanities course in their entire time at university tend to be the mediocre ones. From business majors who have never heard the word colonialism, to engineering majors who have never been introduced to the concept of rape culture, to communications majors who think racism ended with Brown v. Board, it is clear that being an “expert at one thing” is not sufficient. A liberal arts path has always been about providing a comprehensive, in-depth, and unique education focused on important political and social issues and concepts. To me, that should be a central tenant in academia, and a university that does not value it should be at the focus of our criticism.
Hammerstrom is right in calling for internal support for humanities; however, I think her “admittedly radical” proposals are not actually radical at all.
Instead, they are shaped by the neoliberal notion that profit and productivity should be prioritized above all else.
It is important to note that this is a difficult conversation, and one that I am glad I have the privilege to participate in. Access to higher education is undeniably a huge socioeconomic privilege, and if you are able to study in the humanities fields without financial pressures or burdens, that is an even greater privilege. However, this does not mean we should avoid the conversation altogether. Those privileges stem from the very system which leads us to believe the humanities are less valuable, that they must play the game of capitalism proficiently or lose funding.
Students deserve to have the freedom and agency to choose their path of study based on passion and their willingness to learn, without the threat of twenty years of student debt or deficient university funding. How can we make this happen? Well, perhaps the first step is to stop rolling your eyes at every gender studies major, and instead roll your eyes at the system that thinks entrepreneurship is cool.
*This clause was not written by Alyssa Ensingmer. It was added on February 24, 2016 by the Jettison editorial staff.