I read this post a little while back, and really enjoyed it. This is a subject that I have a real fire for, and is one of the top reasons I started Reckless Historians. Over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, John Fea addresses this issue head on, I hope you enjoy the first chunk of his post.
Some of you may recall my post last week about trying to recruit history majors at Messiah College. I received a lot of feedback from this piece. Mark Cheathem and Aaron Cowan had insightful things to say in the comments section (check them out), but I also received a lot of private e-mails from professors who did not feel comfortable writing publicly about the struggles they are facing in trying to defend the humanities on their campuses.
I don’t want to be too dramatic here, but I am starting to think that we may be at a turning point in American higher education as it relates to the humanities and the liberal arts more broadly. (Some say that turning point is long passed and we have now fallen into the abyss. I tend to be a bit more optimistic–at least for now). This might be an obvious statement, but let me explain:
Traditional liberal arts colleges are starting to adjust to changing times, but they are still holding the line, unwilling to abandon their missions and identities as institutions that celebrate liberal learning above all other kinds of learning. I think historians at these colleges–Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, Davidson, Bates, Holy Cross, Richmond, Union, Dickinson, Wheaton, Hillsdale, Ursinus, and Westmont–can feel relatively and comparatively safe, at least for the time being, about the future of the discipline at their institutions.
It is the small comprehensive colleges with liberal arts missions that need to worry. These colleges have split identities. They have “core” or “general education” programs rooted in the liberal arts and they have liberal arts and humanities majors, but their professional programs (nursing, engineering, etc…) attract the most students. Many of these schools have small endowments so their survival depends on tuition dollars. When a college’s livelihood relies so heavily on getting students in the seats, admissions offices and administrators may not care about the ratio of history majors to sports management majors.
So how does a comprehensive college continue to keep a liberal arts or humanities core when the market is bringing them nurses and petroleum engineers?
At the risk of being too simplistic, it seems that a college can respond to this dilemma in one of two ways:
Keep reading here.