“What are you studying?”
We hear the conversation every day on the escalator in Baker, in the halls of dormitories, even at the muffled, crowded bars on Court Street – and think nothing of it. We “ooh” and “ahh” when we hear a fellow student talk about their coming summer internship at the Cleveland Clinic. Our pupils dilate when someone discusses their grand plans of entrepreneurship.
But when we hear the unusual interjection of “philosophy,” “English,” or “gender studies,” we unconsciously feel our eyes roll to the back of our heads.
This attitude is already common at college, and incoming students are mimicking the disdain for the liberal arts curriculum and for humanities degrees. If the number of people graduating with a humanities major continues to decline, eventually there will be no humanistic disciplines left on campuses. At Ohio University, however, there is a way that we can reform the humanities to bring interest and prosperity to these programs. The decline can be reversed if the humanities are treated not just as exploratory classes but also vocational programs, funded equally to other disciplines, and encouraged to invite professionals and lecturers that will network with students.
I have surmised that many incoming students are thinking in terms of wealth in modern society, and the humanities have not provided these young people with feelings of financial stability and promise.
I found this to be true across genders and financial situations, as I conducted an interview over email with Craig Cochran and Allison Haas, both current undergraduates at Ohio University.
“I do not think it is all that important to have a liberal arts focus due to the fact that I am a believer in someone mastering and becoming an expert in one thing as opposed to being mediocre at all things,” Cochran, a Retail Merchandising and Fashion Product Development major, said. When I asked why he did not pursue a humanities major he admitted that they seemed too abstract and intangible. For Cochran, the courses did not seem applicable enough for real-world occupations.
Even Haas, who is working toward a fine arts degree in photography, said she does not see the relevance in many liberal arts prerequisites. Her reason for pursuing photography echoes a common refrain among humanities students. “[Photography is] something I love to do and can see myself doing it forever.”
However, Haas has decided to pursue commercial photography in the hopes of acquiring an adequately-paid career. There still are students who feel strongly about humanistic and artistic pursuits, but they are forced to relinquish their passions in hopes of a more financially stable future.
Enrollment in the humanities is falling behind other programs because the monetary support simply is not there. In the 2014-2015 Ohio University Faculty Salary and Compensation Study, the discrimination between disciplines is clear. (Please note that the variable of tenure was removed from the following statistics.) After crunching the numbers, I discovered the mean salary of a non-humanities professor was approximately $114,341.94, whereas the mean salary of a humanities professor was approximately $95,276.00. This demonstrates the financial disadvantage of choosing the humanities over more clearly career-oriented disciplines. Even at the expert level, the university values programs involving medicine, business, and STEM higher than the humanities.
What is even more interesting, however, is how the study prefaces this disparity: “Differences in salaries among academic disciplines exist at all universities. A study done by Cornell University provides evidence that these differences are due to three factors: quality of different departments’ faculty; market conditions for disciplines such as business and engineering; and the presence/absence of collective bargaining agreements.”
Without the promise of excellent market conditions and the of collective bargaining agreements, OU simply will not fund the humanities properly. If the humanities become more vocationally focused, though, the university will see the market application of these subjects, and more funding will follow. The idea sounds bleak, pragmatic, and quite honestly anti-humanities, but compromise is necessary. If the dismal statistical trends persist, it is going to come down to securing the humanities as career-minded programs, or losing the courses altogether.
So the question remains: How do we reform the humanities and liberal arts curriculum into something with a vocational edge? Departments need to begin viewing themselves as a vehicle for both human exploration and career development. If humanities administrators and educators are not thinking vocationally, students and the university may not see the monetary value in these vital programs. Enough of the humanities budget, once increased, must be allocated to visiting professionals and lecturers who strive not just to educate, but to network. In majors such as Journalism, incoming speakers offer more than just a wealth of knowledge. They are a connection to the outside world and future opportunities, making their contact information available and communicating internship options. For example, if a visiting lecturer in history presents on women in the Middle East, the lecturer should also be advised by the history department to make time to talk one-on-one with students and explain how he or she achieved career success. Students get the most out of their courses of study when education is synthesized with career development.
Once administrators and humanities professors take it upon themselves to redefine what it means to be a humanities major, enthusiasm will follow and students will be interested in exploring their passions and applying them outside of the ivory tower. The university itself will also see the relevance of these programs, which should attract more funding.
When there is adequate funding for the humanities, the opportunities for students in these programs are likely to increase dramatically.
The more incoming students are interested in humanities programs, the more money these programs accumulate, and thus a better chance that humanities degrees will continue to be offered at Ohio University.
This idea is admittedly radical and there is a possibility that these opinions may come off as offensive to people in the humanities, but it is essential for the survival of these departments. Frank Donoghue, an English professor at The Ohio State University, discussed his frustration in his book The Last Professors: “The fate of the humanities faculty in the burgeoning world of for-profit higher education is easy to predict, but painful to contemplate. Universities that, by virtue of their very mission, validate economic efficiency and productivity above all else also sanction apathy toward the humanities.” Donoghue’s prediction is dismal, but it is also gravely realistic. It is unfortunate that the humanities must bend to the will of supply and demand, but if they do not, they may perish.
Universities need liberal arts curriculums and humanities majors. Students need to discover history, literature, philosophy, political science, anthropology, and more so they can discover themselves. Without these subjects, universities would be doing a great disservice to their students and to American society. Even so, schools may well abandon these disciplines for financial gain. Perhaps there can be a compromise, however, between the abstract and the pragmatic. A compromise between the intangible and the tangible. A compromise between the human condition and the forces that govern the human condition.