How Alive Are the Liberal Arts in Honors Programs?

The short answer: very alive.

After an extended period during which more and more students have felt the need–regardless of personal interest and aptitude–to major in business, engineering, or computer-related fields, the liberal arts, especially the humanities, have faced declining enrollment.

The impact that this trend has had on personal growth and enlightened participation in civic life is evident, given the tone and outcome of the presidential election.

In the meantime, several prominent public universities have endured attacks on their humanities departments and commitment to learning for learning’s sake, most notably UT Austin, Florida universities, and, very recently, UW Madison. Most states have dramatically reduced financial support for their universities; some regents have used the real or manufactured budget crisis as a pretext for attacking non-vocational disciplines.

But the liberal arts and, yes, the core humanities that are essential to the liberal arts, have survived in public honors colleges and programs. Some students express resentment that, in order to be in an honors program, they must take a series of interdisciplinary seminars and electives in the humanities. Under pressure from parents or highly focused on their chosen vocational discipline, they want “to  get on with it” and reach a point where they can start making real money and pay back those student loans.

This is understandable. But honors educators know that almost every bright student is in many ways unformed and searching for paths of meaning in their lives. One course in history, or philosophy, or literature, or maybe in religious studies or film, can guide a student toward a lifetime of serious inquiry, self reflection, and greater compassion for others. These and other courses in the liberal arts reinforce the application of informed judgment to facts that are often contradictory or in flux.

Consensus is emerging that for many students, “We don’t need more STEM majors. We need more STEM majors with liberal arts training.” Indeed, this is one of the two or three major advantages of honors programs. STEM majors who otherwise would take few liberal arts courses (and an extremely small number of humanities classes), must take them as members of a university-wide honors college or program.

But one other major–business–could likely benefit even more from greater exposure to the liberal arts and, again, to the humanities

Recent research shows that “critical thinking,” measured after adjusting for entrance test scores, shows the greatest gains for students in the liberal arts.  Engineering and technology students have high raw entrance test scores and strong critical thinking ability, but after adjusting for the effect of the high test scores, their critical thinking skills are relatively lower.

Business majors do not receive high raw or adjusted scores in critical thinking. Given that a plurality of bachelor’s degrees are awarded in business subjects, this is a matter of significant concern.

English is the discipline most offered by honors programs. This is so because many of the required English classes have a heavy writing component, often associated with the study of rhetoric. In these classes the humanities and vocational mastery come together in a way, for the most successful and most fulfilled professionals often have outstanding communication skills and a heightened sensitivity to the thoughts and needs of others.

So what are the “liberal arts”? The answer to this question varies, but here we will include the following disciplines, all of which are traditional core offerings in liberal arts colleges (humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences):

Humanities: English, history, philosophy, fine arts, foreign languages, religious studies, film, classics. Sciences: math, biology, chemistry, physics, geology. Social Sciences: sociology, anthropology, gender studies, psychology, communications, political science, economics, and geography.

(One can see that many of these can be, and often are, “vocational” in themselves.)

Using the above as our “liberal arts,” we used data gathered for our most recent book, Inside Honors, which included 4,460 honors sections. Of these, we found that 59% were in the liberal arts, not counting interdisciplinary seminars, which accounted for another 26% of sections. Most of these seminars had a humanities focus, so about 85% of honors sections were in the liberal arts.

By discipline, English had the highest percentage of sections, even when sections in business, engineering, and technology are included. Math and business disciplines combined had about the same number of sections as English.

The STEM disciplines are strongly represented, however, accounting for 25% of honors sections. (But the science and math sections counted here are also part of the overall liberal arts group.)

Engineering and technology, considered separately, make up  8% of honors sections. Admittedly, the “regular” courses in these disciplines are usually rigorous enough in themselves.

Not all of the humanities are strongly represented, however, with classics, film, and religious studies combined counting for only 1.4% of honors sections. In fairness, the classics do feature prominently in many interdisciplinary seminars.








Florida History Faculty Fights to Sustain Liberal Arts

Note: This article by our editor, John Willingham, was originally published by the History News Network on December 21.

In Florida, a task force commissioned by Gov. Rick Scott has proposed lower tuition rates for STEM majors, allegedly in the interest of the state’s economy, but many of the state’s historians see the plan for what it is—a threat to the humanities.

Historians from the University of Florida and supporters across the country have responded with a formal protest and a petition campaign in late November that so far has obtained more than 2,000 signatures.

“The punitive differential tuition model will lead not only to a decimation of the liberal arts in Florida,” the historians said in the petition. “It will also have a destructive impact on the essential and transferrable skills that these disciplines teach.”

On November 16, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin joined Scott in proposing state university performance measures to ensure that students are “getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today, not just the jobs that the universities want to give us, or degrees that people want to give us?”

Disentangling what is merely unwise and superficial about these plans from some of the disturbing motives behind them would require an interdisciplinary panel including not only historians but political scientists, economists, philosophers, and, yes, scholars from the STEM disciplines that the plan enshrines.  But some very recent analyses of the Florida plan are an excellent place to begin.

An excellent article by Michael Vasquez in the Miami Herald on December 8 questions the extent of the demand for STEM grads as well as the notion that higher salaries will be their reward.  “Petroleum engineering majors are doing very well these days; biologists and chemists are not,” he writes.

And much of the demand in “strategic” fields comes from the healthcare industry, not from all of the STEM professions.  Vasquez writes that when healthcare was not counted, one recent report found that “Florida was one of six states with more unemployed STEM workers than available STEM jobs. Of those six states, Florida had the biggest oversupply of STEM workers.”

But is there any significant demand for liberal arts grads? Last year, Gov. Scott asked a business audience in Tallahassee a rhetorical question, well-reported in the Florida media: “Do you want to use your tax dollars to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t.”

Yet Vasquez tells us that a recent defense department study emphasized the need for sociology and anthropology graduates because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have “highlighted the importance of sociology and anthropology” and the nation should have an “ongoing investment” in both disciplines.

Taking a narrow view based on what appear to be the demands of the present, the task force and the governor are missing subtleties and unintended consequences, the latter among the strongest lessons of history.

One consequence of the recommendations that is neither subtle nor unintended is that even more funding will be taken from the humanities and flow to the so-called strategic areas.  The tuition paid by humanities students already provides an indirect subsidy to most STEM students because the cost to educate students in engineering, technology, and physics is greater than the cost of educating students in the humanities.

Some institutions actually charge more for some STEM majors because of the increased cost.  The task force was aware of this development, according to Vasquez, yet decided to elevate the indirect subsidy to a direct one, knowing that their action would be even more detrimental to the humanities and social sciences.

The Florida historians note that the Florida Council of 100, a non-partisan organization of business leaders formed more than 50 years ago, “submitted a lengthy memo to the task force in which the Council noted the pressing need for ‘liberal arts grads with superior analytical, critical thinking, and communication skills who can quickly learn and apply industry/company specific skills.”

Knowing that liberal arts grads were in demand and that the differential tuition plan would further diminish the presence of liberal arts disciplines, the task force nevertheless persisted.  And this is where the “disturbing motives” mentioned earlier come into play.

Gov. Scott’s mocking of anthropology as a discipline is but one indication of an intense war going on between the most extreme conservatives advocating higher education “reform” on one side, versus major public universities and thoughtful supporters, including many in the business community, on the other side.

Where the perceptive business and political leaders, Republican and Democrat, see the economic value of research, its interplay with the best instruction, and the power of the liberal arts to foster critical thinking skills, the extremists see wasteful spending, pampered professors who should be teaching more classes, and humanities professors threatening the status quo.

The intended consequences of the extremists are to reduce publically-funded universities to second- and third-rate training institutions, leaving the strongest students to seek the best education in private universities, which are held up as models of excellence and free-market efficiency.  Gutting the humanities in public universities will inevitably reduce their ability to maintain first-tier standing, and the best students will go elsewhere.

Readers who may question the use of the word “extremists” to describe these individuals should consider what Thomas Lindsay of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Rick Perry’s designated “think tank,” told the National Review, as reported on December 13: “The higher-ed establishment is an industry that is ripe for disruptive innovation, and that’s what’s happening,” Lindsay said.

It is this kind of “innovation” that came to such ripe fruition at the University of Virginia, where regents bedazzled by the trendiest terms coming out of business schools decided to bypass institutional history, collaborative change, and sound judgment to take a giant leap forward—only to make fools of themselves.

Sound judgment—its formation and use, its value in every part of life—is what is truly at stake in this serious battle over the future of public higher education.  Historians, perhaps better than most, recognize that understanding what has happened, its relation to the present, and its likely impact on the future requires above all things careful and thoughtful judgment, based on a wide spectrum of information.  The development of this enduring asset has long been the aim of the best universities.  While the task force claims to know what constitutes essential information, the liberal arts caution against such assumptions, aware that truth often emerges from sources unforeseen.

Lillian Guerra, one of the Florida professors challenging the task force, teaches Cuban and Caribbean history at the University of Florida.  In an interview with Colleen Flaherty, writing for “Inside Higher Education,” Guerra noted that the “Cuban state in the [1960s and 1970s] began to promote technical fields and the hard sciences because those are the fields believed to generate wealth for the collective aspiration, as opposed to an individual meditation on ideas.”

If someone on the task force had bothered to talk to Guerra or had taken a course in her highly specialized field, they might have glimpsed a surprisingly relevant lesson arising from the dismal performance of the Cuban economy since the 1970s.  Nevertheless, the task force might still be excused if it simply acknowledged that no one can always predict where the best answers might come from.