While we’ve been distracted by the Right’s bogus hysteria about Critical Race Theory somehow being taught in the nation’s kindergartens, the more determined assault on education is evidently occurring on university campuses.
I have previously posted about the decision of Marian College’s President to eliminate that school’s department of Political Science–a decision made over the strenuous objection of the faculty. The scuttlebutt from people ostensibly “in the know” was that the move was motivated by the personal animus of the school’s right-wing (and widely disliked) President for the sole remaining tenured member of that department–a (gasp!) political liberal.
Evidently, however, what I thought was a petty move by an unpopular administrator at a small school wasn’t the “one-off” I’d imagined. According to the website The Baffler,
This is not the story of one department at one college. An hour’s drive to the northwest of Marian, at Purdue University, it is the English department that faced threats. Citing budgetary concerns, the board of trustees halted the acceptance of any new students and proposed cuts to non-tenured faculty. This includes the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing, which until recently included the trailblazing Haitian American author Roxane Gay. Other departments at other universities and colleges around the country are facing similar cuts.
“The ostensible reason provided for these cuts and terminations is “prioritization,” a term used by university administrators to rank which programs deserve funding and attention. One such “prioritization” committee at St. Joseph’s College in New York described it as a ranking of “centrality and essentiality,” “demand and opportunity,” and “productivity, revenue, and resources.” If the terms sound like university administrator gobbledygook, that’s because they are, cleverly disguising administrative judgments as some sort of due process. Around the country it is terms just like these that have been thrown at social science and liberal arts departments. Suddenly, faculty in these departments are expected to justify why they exist and why anyone would need a degree in English.
According to the article, pseudo-business terms like “prioritization” are being used to disguise what are really politically motivated assaults on liberal education.
Prioritization routinely argues that engineering departments need to be the ones getting more money and resources from the administration. Unlike English or political science, which are seen as useless and pointless majors, engineering and computer science carry an implicit promise of a job. Who needs to have read Shakespeare or know about how our political system works when you can rush off to be one among the armies of coders who make our digiverse possible?
In reality, “prioritization” debates, particularly in deep red states, are excellent covers for changing the political demographics of American colleges and universities.
This is just the latest iteration of the Right’s longstanding effort to substitute job training and/or religious indoctrination for education. As Will Bunch recently wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer,
you can draw a straight line between the country’s collective decision to stop seeing education as a public good aimed at creating engaged and informed citizens but instead a pipeline for the worker drones of capitalism, and the 21st century’s civic meltdown that reached its low point nearly one year ago, in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Studying the liberal arts gives students the worldview–the intellectual paradigm– citizens need in order to function in an era of rapid change.
We inhabit a world that is increasingly global and multicultural. Familiarity with human history, philosophy, literature, sociology and anthropology prepares us to encounter, appreciate and thrive in that world. Education in the liberal arts is based upon a profound respect for the importance of human liberty. The life of the mind requires freedom to access and consider any and all ideas, information, and points of view. Critical thinking cannot flower in a totalitarian environment.
Technocrats can live with Big Brother, but artists, poets and philosophers cannot.
Learning how to communicate, learning how to learn–and learning how much there is to learn!– are essential survival skills. If all one learns is a trade–no matter how highly compensated the particular trade might be–he or she is lost when that trade is no longer in demand. Even if that never happens, lack of familiarity with the liberal arts makes it far less likely that an individual’s non-work life will be full and rich.
Despite the Right’s distaste for expertise, evidence, and smarty-pants “intellectuals,” America desperately needs educated people. The survival of democracy requires an educated population– and there’s a significant difference between learning a trade, important as that may be, and becoming educated.
That difference is the liberal arts–and that’s why they are being targeted.