The inappropriate pressure to turn universities into vocational colleges is having an unfortunate effect on my alma mater…and colleges everywhere. The humanities are being cannibalized to feed the STEM monster.
You won’t find a single expert on the history of the American Revolution or the Civil War at the University of Washington anymore. Since last year, the state’s oldest and largest university no longer employs a professor who specializes in American history before the year 1900.
Its history department has no scholars on the history of ancient Greece and Rome, and it recently stopped teaching Sanskrit, the ancient language of India and the root of many other languages.
Yikes. I took a look at the faculty roster for the history department, and it still seems huge compared to what we’ve got at my little university, and there’s far more diversity now than what I recall from <gulp> almost 40 years ago, when every course seemed to be taught by a white man. So there are some pluses…but the big gaps are troubling. Also, I don’t recognize anyone there at all — except for one emeritus professor, Arther Ferrill. And I was a guy who spent a lot of time in the history department. I guess that’s to be expected after my long departure.
“What’s sad for the younger generation is that so many students here have been literally pushed away from the social sciences and humanities to STEM, and are not happy,” said UW history professor James Gregory.
“There’s so much messaging in general about STEM, STEM, STEM,” he said.
Gregory remembers a discussion he had with a bright student, a history buff who was majoring in finance, but kept signing up for history classes because, as she described it, “I love to think.”
Why not switch your major, he suggested.
“My parents wouldn’t hear of it,” she said.
It me. Almost.
I took full advantage of any and all electives I could squeeze into my schedule, and sank deeply into the history department offerings — I even considered switching to a history major or at least a minor, early in my undergrad tenure, but decided against it, not because of parental pressure, but because I liked biology way too much. I got my loving to think in bio as well as history.
One thing I’d say to Dr Gregory, though, is that a lot of STEM faculty would agree with him. One problem we have is students who regard our STEM courses as not so much a learning experience in themselves, but an obstacle to getting a degree so they can go on to the job they want or the professional program they want to enter. Every year I get a crop of advisees with well-thought-out plans to get through the degree requirements as fast as they, with electives chosen outside of their major for how well they fit into their schedule, or how easy they are, and that’s a tragedy. I tell them they ought to pick a subject that interests them and think about taking courses to build their breadth of knowledge. Sure, you’re a biology major, but that shouldn’t prevent you from getting some in-depth knowledge about history, or poetry, or philosophy just because you can.
Unfortunately, that attitude doesn’t help if your university kills the program you love most. That’s why we need to support every discipline, not just STEM.
Also, I thought the Quad, where most of the history classes were taught, was the prettiest part of campus back then. That walk from Red Square up through the tree-lined lawns of the Quad was much nicer than the the spooky shortcuts through the basement tunnels of the monolothic bulk of the Health Sciences Center that I learned so well.