The newly relocated Massachusetts Medievalist on liberal arts and practical majors

Musing on medieval studies, higher ed, Massachusetts art and culture

As one of many changes wrought this spring, the Massachusetts Medievalist blog has officially moved from Humanities Commons to Substack - welcome to new subscribers! I hope you like the new site's functionalities. Stay tuned for the summer 2020 online reading group, geared toward Lesley University undergraduates but open to everyone. First, some timely musings on higher ed:

Right now, all of higher ed is in chaos. We went all-remote to end spring 2020, and now university presidents are juggling predictions for all-online or all-in-person terms for fall 2020 as well the infinite number of hybrid possibilities in between. All universities anticipate fewer students and smaller operating budgets in the coming academic year; some have started to cut academic programming, among other items, in response.

Missouri Western State University has been most in the news for its draconian cuts in faculty and programs, but it is not unique in the overall target of those cuts: majors in the traditional liberal arts. MWSU is eliminating programs in English, history, philosophy, and economics, among others. At the same time, MWSU and other schools are expanding programs in "practical" majors that train students for specific jobs in burgeoning fields: for example, undergraduates can now enroll in e-sports management programs at schools as disparate as Ohio State and Becker College, as well as at MWSU.

My fear about these sorts of programs is that they are so specialized that they don’t allow any professional flexibility when markets and economies inevitably change. A history major knows how to do research in a variety of modes, how to examine a problem from a variety of angles, how to write clearly and cleanly about that research and examination, and how to adapt numerous modes of thinking to different situations. Those are all crucial skills applicable in an infinite assortment of circumstances. In 2035, would an employer be more likely to hire a history major, with that nebulous but importantly fungible skill set, or an e-sports management major, whose skill set will be finite, esp without any professional development since 2020? So students majoring in e-sports management can find employment at graduation right now, but could easily find themselves in 2035 in the same position as travel agents in 2010 (remember travel agents?).

The traditional liberal arts do allow students to find gainful employment after graduation, despite stereotypes about baristas living in their parents' basements. More importantly, I suggest here that the current administrative and political preference for majors that will supposedly allow a student to “get a job” is ultimately elitist.  

The policy makers and “thought leaders” who advocate for cutting traditional liberal arts majors largely went to highly selective schools that would never consider cutting the history major, and most of them majored in the traditional liberal arts. Many years ago, at a conference discussion of MOOCs (remember those?), one of the speakers uttered a phrase that’s always stuck with me: “Walmart education good enough for other people’s children.” The underlying effect of these cuts to the liberal arts is to provide the majority of the nation's undergraduates with “practical” majors at regional public universities that will enable them to “get a job” while the children of the supposed meritocracy have access to the thought processes and inquiry methods that will enable them to assume positions of cultural, political, and economic power. Overly specialized, skill-specific majors are another form of Walmart education good enough for other people's children. 

Part of my motivation in advocating for the liberal arts is indeed self-interested. I do want more students in my classes, but not to check the boxes of some enrollment management spreadsheet about faculty productivity. In my own small corner of higher ed, I see very clearly the need for a broad diversity of students majoring in the humanities. If we don’t provide the students at regional, non-selective universities even the opportunity to choose traditional liberal arts majors, then those traditional liberal arts will remain entrenched at majority-white, majority-upper-income institutions; those liberal arts will continue to reinforce their own exclusivity and closed-mindedness; they will continue to seem less relevant to the majority of Americans. Liberal arts narratives will continue to be constructed by white, upper-middle-class scholars, mostly heterosexual males, and the world at large will be intellectually impoverished from that homogeneity. An array of liberal arts majors benefits the discourse in the university , yes-- and those majors also benefit the graduates who leave that university to engage in multiple, overlapping, compelling contributions to the economy and the culture at large.