Searching for the Humanities

John Fea, a history chair, describes what he learned on his daughter's college tours about the presence or absence of a liberal arts ethos.
May 27, 2016

I have spent a lot of time in the past year visiting college campuses with my daughter. She is a senior in high school and has recently made her college choice. We visited all kinds of institutions: elite private schools, liberal arts colleges, Christian colleges and public universities. My daughter is a humanities person. She will most likely major in something like English or history. If she dabbles in the social sciences, she will probably pursue anthropology or sociology.

She was also very perceptive about the vibe that she got from the colleges that she visited. She did not merely want an institution with strong humanities programs. She wanted one with a humanities ethos that pervades the campus.

A few months ago, on back to back days, we visited two very prestigious private universities. The first institution, despite its reputation as a world-class research university, presented itself, first and foremost, as an undergraduate liberal arts college. The admissions office and tour guides noted that many of the professional schools, including the graduate school, were located in remote parts of the campus. The layout of this campus exuded a sense of community rooted in ideas and questions about what it means to be human.The departments of History, English and African-American Studies were all located at the center of campus. When my daughter told some of the current students that she was thinking about majoring in English or history she was greeted with enthusiasm.

The second institution -- another world class research university -- offered a very different feel. Little was said about the humanities and liberal arts. Our tour did not even venture to the location on campus where these departments were housed. Instead the presentations stressed professional programs: business and engineering.  When we talked to some students at an off-campus residential community, we learned that none of them were majoring in humanities-related fields. I think my daughter was embarrassed to tell people on the campus that she was interested in the humanities.

Last fall, we also attended a few Christian colleges. One of these colleges had a strong tradition of liberal arts and humanities education. During her evening in the dorms, my daughter met several humanities majors. The next day, during presentations, tours, and classes, she was deeply impressed by the way the questions raised by the humanities-oriented disciplines animated everything that happened in the curriculum of this institution. (This college is not defined as a "liberal arts college" by the Carnegie rankings.)  

My daughter was not sure if she wanted to attend a Christian college, but if she decided to do so, she wanted an institution with a strong commitment to the integration of faith and learning. She was aware that such integration is difficult, if not impossible, without robust support for the humanities -- history, English, theology, philosophy, languages and the like. Those disciplines raise the “big questions” about what it means to be a human being in the world -- the kinds of questions more compatible with religious faith. She felt at home in this place.

The other Christian college that she visited attracts more students interested in professional majors. The humanities programs are solid, but the faculty spends a lot of its time fighting for the importance of the liberal arts. During the course of the visit, a few students asked my daughter about her intended major. In every case, when my daughter said she was interested in history or English, her new acquaintances asked her if she wanted to teach. When my daughter said she was not interested in teaching, her hosts responded: "Then what are you going to do with that [degree]?" She also sensed that the admissions staff did not know how to talk about the humanities.

My daughter came home from the visit wondering if she could find any conversation partners or friends with the same interests. Everyone she met, it seemed, was majoring in athletic training, nursing or business. I told her that she certainly would meet people at this institution who had the same passions and interests as she did, but, in the end, what my daughter sensed was correct: this college did not have a humanities or liberal arts ethos.  She felt it.

I have enjoyed seeing these various colleges and universities through my daughter’s eyes. I have concluded that the liberal arts and humanities are still strong at the small institutions of higher learning that continue to define themselves as “liberal arts colleges” and are categorized as such. But beyond those elite colleges, the chances of finding an institution in which the humanities define the academic culture are slim at best.

In my experience, students are still interested in subjects like history and English, but they see these more as a "hobby" than a legitimate focus of undergraduate study. I can't tell you how many times I have heard a talented undergraduate tell me something like this: "I love history, and I would love to study it, but I am not sure what I can do with it, and neither are my parents." 

For the last several years, I have been arguing (along with a lot of other people) that humanities departments need to do a better job of showing students how the skills they learn in our courses are transferable in the marketplace. As part of their college experience, humanities and liberal arts students should know how to articulate those skills to potential employers. We want our students to get jobs in the business and nonprofit sectors not in spite of the fact that they majored in a humanities discipline, but because they did.  I have made these arguments in my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past and at my blog “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” through an ongoing series of posts that I call "So What CAN You Do With a History Major.”

As a history department chairperson, when I speak to potential history majors, or even curious students in my general education courses whom I am trying to "convert" to the history major, I emphasize not only the content that they will learn in history courses but also the transferable skills. I would encourage professors in liberal arts colleges to work with admissions officers about making sure students know that humanities majors can make a decent living in a variety of different professions and careers. If trained well, they should know how to think clearly, write well, communicate effectively, tell stories, empathize with others and take small bits of information and make meaning out of them.

A move in that direction may also require curriculum changes or additions. For example, at the college where I teach, we added a one-year "Introduction to History" course that contains a substantial unit devoted to careers. The students read the pertinent chapters of Why Study History? and hear from career-center staff about how to sell themselves as history majors to potential employees. Our department even added an "administrative studies" concentration to our curriculum. Students in that concentration take the full history major, but they use some of their non-history electives to take courses in business, leadership, economics and politics. 

I have worked hard at trying to transform my department along these lines, but sometimes I wonder if I have gone too far in this direction. Instead of championing transferable skills and all the things students in history can "do" with their majors, maybe I should have spent more time challenging this market-oriented approach by defending humanities learning for learning's sake. We don't spend as much time anymore talking about the non-marketable values of the humanities or the benefit of humanistic learning to make us better people or citizens. I know that my faculty colleagues care about this, but I'm not so sure about the majority of the students whom I encounter. I worry that the success of a particular humanities discipline is now being measured by utilitarian ends such as career outcomes.

This career-driven approach to the humanities is the new reality for those of us who teach at tuition-driven schools with smaller endowments. I am aware of the high-profile cases in which politicians with control over state budgets have attacked the humanities. I realize that unless we start focusing on careers and transferable skills we will continue to have depleting enrollments in humanities majors, continue to lose faculty lines in our departments, and see government funding for our disciplines dry up.

But I still believe this: STEM and other professional fields may help to build a strong economy, but the humanities -- and the liberal arts more broadly -- provide education for a democracy.

I understand that my daughter's interest in a college with a humanities ethos is unusual in today's day and age. In the end, she decided she wants to attend a college with a culture where the humanities define the warp and woof of everyday life and where she will not have to explain to dorm mates and other friends why she is majoring in history and what, beyond teaching, she is going to do with such a major.


John Fea is the chair of the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA.


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