Diversity in the Humanities

A Tale of Two Crises

Are dwindling support for the humanities and a lack of diversity in higher education two separate issues, asks Christine Henseler, or are they, in fact, closely intertwined?

December 9, 2016
 
 
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One morning not too long ago, I opened Inside Higher Ed and read a story about the dwindling support for humanities. Citing low enrollments, Western Illinois University had just cut four degree programs, including philosophy and religious studies. Faculty members were worried. Metrics were being questioned.

In other news outlets, another dire situation played out: more student protests over a lack of diversity -- this time at Seattle University. The tone was urgent. The institution placed the dean on administrative leave, and the students demonstrated for 22 days, demanding more attention to diversity in the curriculum.

Were these two separate stories? Or were they, in fact, closely intertwined?

Campus politics over the past decade have centered on diversity issues -- on addressing racial, ethnic, sexual and gender bias in the student body, faculty and administration. “Inclusivity” is the watchword on campuses today. Consequently, over the past few years, new diversity officers have been hired, budgets for diversity efforts have been skyrocketing -- in 2015, for instance, Yale University committed $50 million toward faculty diversity initiatives -- and intellectual approaches to the understanding of diversity are being integrated into curricula at places like Hamilton College.

While the emphasis on diversity is gaining momentum, force and funding, the perceived crisis in the humanities appears to be fading into the background, left to defend itself ad nauseam. In fact, it seems that these two movements may even be functioning against one another. The result of more affordable access to college for lower-income students, for example, may very well be leading to cuts in programs with low enrollments or lower salary yields (i.e., the humanities), as Gordon Hutner and Feisal G. Mohamed of the University of Illinois readily underscore in “The Real Humanities Crisis Is Happening at Public Universities.”

But can our institutions of higher education afford not to support and invest heavily in the humanities? Can we welcome a growing number of diverse students without increased attention to the study of languages, art, music and cultural contributions of people from diverse communities around the world? Can our country claim to educate democratic citizens without teaching our children to analyze the messages that inform their personal and political lives -- skills learned in literature classes? Can our country grapple with radical Islamic groups while defunding religious studies programs and courses in Arabic language and culture, art, and history?

I find it troubling that explicit and comprehensive support for the humanities as central to any institution’s efforts to build a diverse and inclusive curriculum and campus culture has largely been absent from national conversations.

The humanities inform the kinds of values implicit in diversity and inclusion initiatives because our disciplines consistently demand that we become more attuned to the nuances of each other’s lives. The knowledge students gain in the most diverse learning hubs on our campuses -- as most of our modern languages and literatures departments are -- allow them to more truly value each other’s differences inside and outside the classroom, in local or global communities. In those spaces, they learn to confront their own biases and blind spots by engaging with distinct social and cultural backgrounds and the ways in which language, literature, theater, film, art and media shape and inform diverse and ever-changing worldviews and identities every single day.

The humanities give us the knowledge and the skills to share and express who we are and how we see our place in the world. In the process, we all gain the critical and creative thinking, communication, and comprehension skills needed to build the bridges that our diversity and inclusivity efforts are working toward.

The goal of diversity measures is to broaden the voices and perspectives on a campus. So why are we cutting out the vital stream of voices embodied in the arts and humanities? In an era of tight budgets, these may be seen as competing priorities, as distinct issues, but that’s a mistake. Greater diversity can broaden our conceptions of art, history, music, language studies and other arts and humanities. And the arts and humanities can support and enrich a culture of inclusivity across many communities, fields and professions.

Bio

Christine Henseler is a professor of Spanish and Hispanic studies at Union College.

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