Tunnel Vision and Education

In a recent educational blog a writer says that the primary reason students go to college is financial gain and therefore the humanities have fallen by the wayside in terms of support and interest. He cites this as evidence that the humanities have “lost touch” with the student body. Using the UCLA freshman survey he cites that  1970 was the last year in which “to help others who are in difficulty” was listed as the top primary reason to be in college. In the 2001 survey “being very well off financially” was the top reason for college. Consequently although the humanities topped the list of undergraduate majors in 1970 it was the last year that they did so. Today over one fifth of all students major in business and many community and for profit colleges don’t even have humanities majors. He believes that this accounts for a “conservative citizenship” which supports tax breaks for the wealthy, cutbacks in social services, and the end of federal support for the humanities.

To be fair this is only the first part of his reasoning about the subject and he may indeed end up suggesting ways the humanities can work with such a student body.  I am not sticking my head ostrich-like in the sand about this, but I am asking if it is true and whether we should accept this as a given or try to change it. On the one hand I have have the experiences of someone recently at a large major university and his horror stories of the ethical naivete of his colleagues and their lack of understanding of the world.  I compare this to my own experiences teaching at a liberal arts college where the humanities are alive and well.  They are indeed quite different institutions, experiences and students.  The question I raise is whether a common ground can be found between the two. The country will not be better off with a citizenry only comprised of either the ethically challenged, self seeking, tunnel-visioned non-humanities major or the impractical, softheaded, humanities aesthete (to play dueling stereotypes for the moment.)

As a humanities teacher I never thought the goal was to produce more cloistered humanities academics like myself, but people who would be out in the world doing non-humanities things better for having been taught how the humanities (history, literature, art, music philosophy, dance, theater etc.) challenges, reflects and embodies its world. The old saw was that we were teaching a way of seeing, thinking about and reflecting upon the world as well as the content we taught. I daresay many of my humanities colleagues did the same as did many of my non-humanities comrades at our liberal arts school. They may have trained some scientists, economists etc. as I trained a handful of historians but I think they would say they trained many more people who understood how a scientist, economist, mathematician or whatever thought about the world. How many professors at different institutions can say the same. Do those electrical engineering teachers only train people to be electrical engineers? Do business teachers only teach about profit margins, demand and supply, and such. I do not know but I do know that it would be a sad thing if they do. It is a miserly education that  prepares you to do only one thing. An education should prepare you to live in the world in all of the aspects of the word.

To the extent that university level education gives in to student demands to learn only how to make money particularly by doing one thing, it has failed in its mission. This is true even if some students have this tunnel vision and seek or demand it.  Larger universities try to overcome this through general education and non-major requirements. They may or may not be successful in broadening a student’s vision, but we must keep trying. Some places have tried it by making these courses more entertaining; others by making them seem more relevant; and still others by unfortunately “dumbing them down.” All of these undoubtedly have their place, but most importantly they are signs of recognizing the problem. Students also have to recognize the problem for any of these solutions to work. We have to ask however, to what extent are the educational establishment, politicians and leaders, or society itself reinforcing the student tendencies towards only selfish financial reasons to go to college? How many articles and media pieces that look at college as a only financial investment whose return can be measured in dollars and cents?. How many educational institutions market themselves as ways to increase lifetime income. How many politicians have written off the humanities as ways to spend public monies?  How has society reinforced the idea that a person should be judged on the basis of his or her income rather than “the content of his (or her) character” to quote Dr. King. Is this the world we have? In my own experience it is not, but more importantly is it the world we want?

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