West Virginia University’s announcement last week that it planned to eliminate its world languages department, as well as its fiction writing program and other humanities disciplines, sent shock waves through liberal arts departments across the country. The university’s president, Dr. Gordon Gee, said the proposed cuts, which would remove 169 faculty members and 32 majors, result from a $45 million deficit.
Naturally, he plans to keep engineering and football. WVU leadership has been putting money in those programs like they were slot machines for the last ten years, which follows a trend nationwide. Sometimes those machines pay out. Students in particular STEM majors do quite well for themselves after they graduate.
Yet it seems disingenuous to reduce funding for humanities then bemoan their inability to attract students, which is precisely what has happened in West Virginia. (For what it’s worth, there has been an upward tick in the number of humanities majors nationwide since 2016, largely because those majors give students critical thinking and communication skills that other majors don’t.) Dr. Gee’s suggestion for students who still want those classes is to take them online from schools that do offer them, which is the ultimate “screw you” to the humanities. Online classes, as we learned during the pandemic, aren’t worth a bucket of cold, week-old dog urine.
Rather than cut humanities programs, governments and universities alike should acquiesce to the notion that education, when done well, is an inherently inefficient, yet supremely important endeavor. They should fund it accordingly, whether than involves shiny new labs for STEM types, or language programs for people yearn to see the world differently. If the money starts to run short, make sure administrators and assistant coaches get the ax long before the people who do the actual teaching. This is only an “either/or” crisis if we allow the Gordon Gees of the world to make it one. How about a “both/and” solution? Let’s teach the left side of the brain as well as the right.
I’m not sure why teachers and leaders in the humanities must defend their existence every time they turn around. It isn’t like instruction in STEM disciplines is apolitical–remember the hullabaloo about stem-cell research?–or inexpensive, or that a STEM degree guarantees a steady income. What can be done to remind politicos, pundits, and university presidents that a good education can only be as deep as it is wide? Or do you find an “education” where you take almost all your courses in your major an enticing prospect?