Peter Schrag

The Conversation: Is the UC system starving the humanities?

Published: Sunday, Jul. 22, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Thursday, Mar. 21, 2013 - 10:08 pm

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By now the effects of the financial beating inflicted on the University of California and other public colleges and universities in California should be as familiar as they're depressing.

It's a long list: escalating tuition charges; canceled classes and deferred hopes for graduation; the frantic search for private funds to replace the hundreds of millions of public dollars cut from university budgets; the pursuit of foreign students who pay fat out-of-state fees and the growing percentage of California students they displace at places like Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego.

But with the economic squeeze on higher education and the privatization of the public systems that comes with it, the humanities themselves may be in jeopardy.

An increasingly vocal group of UC humanists are certain they are. English and other modern languages, the classics and philosophy, history, the arts and the other fields that don't attract the outside support that goes to the sciences, to engineering, medicine and business, are increasingly – and inaccurately – being treated like charity cases that can't pay their own way.

• A professor of English at UC Irvine and director of the UC Humanities Research Institute, David Goldberg, points to a "staggering" drop in support and in tenure-track staffing for humanities departments on his campus.

• A professor of American studies at UC Santa Barbara, Christopher Newfield, says that over the past 20 years more and more tenure-track positions on his campus have been replaced by adjuncts and teaching assistants.

• A political scientist at UC Santa Cruz, Isebill "Ronnie" Gruhn, says the administration there "is heavily weighted toward the sciences," there have been serious cutbacks in language teaching and "philosophy has shrunk to almost nothing."

• Meanwhile, an English professor at UCLA, Robert Watson, says tuition paid by students enrolled in humanities programs, which require no labs or expensive equipment and thus cost less, cross-subsidize the sciences. "But the main battle for our collective future will be against the assumption that monetary profit is finally the only real measure of anything."

As a result, UC Berkeley professors Colleen Lye and James Vernon say, "Humanists have found themselves conspicuously identified with the 'public sector' of the now hybridized university and forced to defend the public value of their teaching and research."

Are the Cassandras right or just self-serving Chicken Littles? Humanists have complained about neglect at least since the post-World War II era, when the federal government and the well-endowed foundations began putting ever more money into the sciences and engineering.

And if they are right, to what extent have they inflicted the damage on themselves through over-emphasis on esoteric specialization – deconstructionism, critical theory, race theory, attacks on the "canon" of Western literature, and, more generally, by a neglect of ethical issues and what Watson called "a misguided effort to make (the humanities) more hip and sociologically engaged"?

Nonetheless, there's good reason for concern – and we could end up paying a high price. The great universities – California's among them – have always had a three-part mission: education of undergraduates and graduate students; research not just in science and medicine but in all major fields; and, equally important, but often forgotten these days, preservation and enrichment of the cultural legacy essential to any great society.

Would we know who we are without knowing our common history and culture; without knowing Madison and Jefferson and Melville and Dickinson and Hawthorne; without Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer; without Dante and Cervantes; without Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen; without Goethe and Moliere; without Confucius, Buddha, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.; without Mozart, Rembrandt and Michelangelo; without the Old Testament; without the Gospels; without Plato and Aristotle, without Homer and Sophocles and Euripides, without Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; without Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison?

For the better part of 20 years, however, maybe longer, as university presidents, including the presidents of the University of California, sought support for their institutions both from the public and political leaders that third element has gotten little mention. When asked about it UC President Mark Yudof acknowledged that it was "a fair criticism."

Like others, he says, he emphasizes what "will sell." He also acknowledged "there was some erosion" in humanities programs which created a "morale issue." He himself was "a liberal arts guy" in college who shares "their anxiety." He vowed to do "some fundraising" to address it.

But at UC, as at most public universities – and many private ones as well – the pervasive presidential message is still about economic competitiveness, about career opportunities, about research and medical breakthroughs and engineering, and very little about the liberal arts or citizenship or our common cultural heritage.

Last fall, the financially strapped Albany campus of the State University of New York announced elimination of five humanities programs: French, Russian, Italian, classics and theater.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott says to hell with the social sciences. "If I'm going to take money from a citizen to put into education," he said last October, "I'm going to take that money to create jobs." The liberal arts, poet Robert Frost famously quipped a half-century ago, are subjects you can't see any immediate use for.

There are no precise numbers – no metrics of cultural loss. Nor are comparisons easy to make, no exact way to know how many programs are being cut in fields other than the humanities.

UC's own data give a partial indication. In 1990-91, 21 percent of UC undergraduate degrees were awarded in the arts and the humanities; in 2010-11 it was 17 percent. That's a decline of 23 percent. In the same period degrees awarded in the life sciences had increased 35 percent; in business they were up 74 percent.

Those numbers are probably driven as much by the economy and student choice as by the university itself. But as Gruhn said, that may also be "a chicken and egg thing." As staffing and courses are cut, "there's less student interest." But the failure of UC leaders to make a stronger case for the humanities is surely part of it.

And since most UC campuses have very flexible requirements for courses outside a student's major – and since all higher education increasingly treats students as customers – there's no way to know how liberally any of them are educated. Many graduate with little command of any foreign language or any understanding of U.S. history beyond what they were required to take in high school to qualify for UC admission.

"There's a lot of choice," in the courses students take outside of their majors, said Berkeley historian David Hollinger, the immediate past president of the Organization of American Historians, "but little structure."

Meaning students get short-changed, too. "The world is changing so fast," as Watson said, "that most students will end up doing better if they learn to think creatively and empathetically, to communicate and to appreciate complexity, rather than locking in a set of job skills for a job that will look nothing like it looks now."

Where is the ethical dimension? Where is the richness that the arts provide? Where is the civic sense? Gruhn calls it "the tragedy of the humanities."

The stronger the institution, as Hollinger points out, the stronger the humanities, meaning that the well-endowed private universities – Stanford, the Ivy League, the University of Chicago – that UC measures itself against have a lot more academic autonomy. Weaker institutions are much more subject to the "accountability" demands and economic calculus of donors and trustees.

Berkeley, he believes, is still in relatively good shape. It has the prestige to withstand pressure from the bean counters. Although Hollinger didn't say it, the newer campuses may not have that luxury, nor do most other public universities.

And even Berkeley may not be all that secure. In 1996, three Berkeley humanists asked me to lunch to air their worries about the way the humanities were then getting hammered in the media and by politicians for political correctness – and about the failure of UC's leaders to defend them. One of those three, the literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt, who won this year's Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, is now at Harvard.

Over the years, Hollinger says, while UC's leaders "have been slow to explain to the citizenry" the crucial importance of the humanities, the humanists have themselves failed to make common cause with other fields in strengthening the university and enhancing its autonomy.

A half-century ago, the great British physicist and novelist C.P. Snow, in his influential lecture "Two Cultures," chastised "literary intellectuals" for their insularity and proud disdain of the sciences. Things are a bit different today – but maybe not all that much. What's certain is that there's a badly neglected story that needs to be told – to the public, to donors and alumni, to the Legislature, and maybe especially to the students.

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