Oh, no. Not my University of Washington!

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.


  1. says

    I wonder: What would all these people who keep flogging students into STEM majors think about Caltech’s undergraduate program, in which all students are required to take several units of humanities as they progress toward their STEM degrees? Narrow thinkers are in the ascendant again, requiring constant vigilance to limit the damage they cause.

  2. sparks says

    What is that oft cited quote…
    “Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes.”

  3. Sean Boyd says

    My biggest regret from my undergrad is that I didn’t choose more humanities electives. I did get a year of a foreign language, and I did take a class at Fairhaven College (at WWU in Bellingham – Fairhaven is similar to Evergreen State College in many ways), both of which were beyond the needed graduation requirements. Those I fulfilled at a community college, before transferring. In retrospect, I wish I’d done a minor in something like history and philosophy, even if it had cost me an extra year. I was paying, though, and fit the “extras” into my schedule to fit around the requirements of my major.

    Sadly, the rot is setting in at my alma mater too. When I took Russian at Western, there was a Russian major…four full years of the language were taught. They’re down to three years now, and only offer a minor. Don’t know about other subjects at Western, but I can imagine it’s similar to what’s happening at UW. I know that, as I was leaving school, finishing touches were being put on a new chemistry building, and since then, a new biology building as well (or vice versa, maybe?). Another new building at Western is dedicated to STEM education. When I left, the school had an engineering technology program, but has recently branched out to offering an electrical engineering BS. Other than an expansion of the main library, I don’t think other departments at Western have seen such an influx of resources.

    I wish that STEM majors were required to obtain a liberal arts minor.

  4. says

    The Quad was my always my favorite study hall for a few weeks during the spring quarter. If I close my eyes I can still smell the cherry blossoms.

  5. eliza422 says

    I went to UNC Chapel Hill, and I got a BA in Chemistry, not a BS, because I loved all the subjects and took a wide variety of them. I knew by my sophomore year I wasn’t going to pursue Chemistry any further, but I had enough credits and I still enjoyed it. By doing the BA I was able to take the literature, language, history, etc. that I loved so much.
    I lucked into a great IT career after college (when they used to do training programs and didn’t want Comp Sci majors) and I see the differences even after all these years – the impact of my humanities classes cannot be overstated. Right out of college (’88) I was able to write and communicate better than most of my program – mates. I despair for kids today who feel such pressure, although I know it’s the world we’ve created for them. I don’t know what we can do to turn the tide.

  6. Callinectes says

    UK universities don’t have electives or minors at all. I had to sneak in to other classes to get a glimpse of what they were up to.

  7. zetopan says

    Another irony is that all of those STEM graduates will not be able to get any science related jobs in the government since Trump’s anti-science agenda is eliminating those positions in favor of staffing with the “more diverse industry representatives”. Tea partiers, creationists (many of which are AGW denialists), and other Reich Wingers are ecstatic over these Trump changes.


  8. Elladan says

    I was lucky enough during my STEM major at the University of Washington to realize what I was missing, so I took a detour for a minor in the history of ancient Greece and Rome. It was great!

    It was also run through the Classics Department, a completely separate group from the History Department. So it’s really not surprising the history department is lacking in that regard…

    That said, people were complaining about the university’s destructive STEM focus even then.

  9. says

    Absolutely agree on the need for a diverse education. I spent 4 years of practical chemistry training at a Technical College before tackling a degree with a geology major so i was extremely science focused. Thankfully the two palaeontology lecturers, (my eventual major) encouraged students to think outside the box and constantly challenged us with what were fairly unconventional teaching methods. One of them,after discussing some of my assignment work, recommended I do some philosophy subjects. That was mind-opening and vastly improved my critical thinking skills. It also aroused my interest in the history of science. That particular professor had done the conventional PhD route then did the stereotypical Aussie thing of going to Europe. On his way back he toured through places like Iran,Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. Not only did he eventually develop academic connections in many of these countries, he also became interested in Near Eastern art and did an arts degree majoring in that field. The other professor was originally an English and History teacher who came to the uni as part of an intake of teachers who only had teaching certificates and were upgrading these to a Dip Ed. to be eligible for promotion. She took one biology subject as a filler and was hooked, eventually majoring in palaeontology and doing her PhD. The university course system was structured so you could major in palaeo either via a geology or biology route or, in my case both. The research institution I did my PhD at is a small one, around 100 students at any one time but when I was studying there I mixed with students reasearching topics such as the mathematics of music and music in psychology, veterinary ethics, orientalist literature and the concept of time in medieval Islamic thought. My own supervisor had a degree in biomedical science but when he started his PhD did a literature course and was hooked. His eventual PhD was in American Literature studying the work of a little known American mystical poet. Conversations with him were always interesting and ranged from Shakespeare through to physics and the poetry of Rumi, (he was also an expert on the Mathnawi having read it in the original Persian). The loss of this diversity in learning saddens me. i have seen whole departments closed and their specialist libraries broken up and sold off. Knowledge is not simply found in books or Google and Wikipedia. It is a living thing constantly developing and passed on from one person to another. The loss of this living tradition is tantamount to blowing a civilisation’s brains out. There is an old saying that those who don’t learn from the mistakes of history are destined to repeat them. With the closure of faculties such as history it more a case of those who don’t learn history/

  10. cartomancer says

    I have noticed a considerable disjunct between scientists and humanities people in this regard. Lots of scientists seem to value the humanities, and make efforts to learn something of them, but the attitude of people in the humanities is a bit different. We tend to think of science as a valuable and useful thing, but very few of us make any effort to learn about it at anything but the most superficial level. The mathematics tends to put us off, as does the rather curt and perfunctory style of the literature.

    Then again, in Britain we tend to specialise much earlier. Most of those pursuing the humanities tend to stop doing any science subjects at all at 16, and most of those pursuing the sciences tend to drop the humanities at 16 too. We usually study three or four subjects at A-level (16-18) before embarking on an undergraduate degree in a single subject at 18, or occasionally a joint honours course covering two closely related subjects, such as History and Politics, Classics and English, or (my own poison) Ancient and Medieval History. Most universities allow students pursuing any course to attend lectures on other subjects, but here we tend to take the view that if you’re interested in something else you will pursue it as a hobby on the side, not as part of your formal studies. Plenty do just that of course, which I think is a good thing in some ways – learning should be about personal interest, not just about formal enrollments and working towards qualifications.

  11. Pablo Campos says

    I’m very glad that PZ is talking about my university and the gutting of the Humanities. Most people don’t give a damn about this and why it’s as bad as ignoring scientific fields. Educaters and advocates rarely talk about the need of history, languages, etc. People complain about science illiteracy but overlook the severe illiteracy of history, religions, languages and more of the population. I have even noticed this illiteracy among otherwise smart people. I think I have talked about my study of history and area studies before. Either way, I’m now in the point that I’ve recently decided to study for a science major because of the lack of resources and a stable future job in the Humanities. It’s sad really. UW is one of the few institutions in America that has a department program devoted to the neglected topic of Central Asia and it’s history and culture. I even learned a obscure language where only 50 non-native scholars or students in America are fluent in. All for nothing because our hyper capitalist system can care less. It all still sucks though as many people within STEM are still given poor pay and job prospects are unpredictable. What a time to live in…

  12. JoeBuddha says

    Comp Sci major here. Due to my interest in Philosophy and Comparative Cultural Studies, I ended up with 196 credits and no degree. I’d be there still if it wasn’t for the fact I needed to make a living. There’s always something else to learn!

  13. John Morales says

    Pablo, ‘educators’, ‘hypercapitalist’, ‘its’.

    (Yeah, I know… you’re perfectly intelligible, but you misspelt, you failed to indicate the compound term, and you’re confused about what’s called the possessive (it’s technically the genitive); still, you did make your point about illiteracy, even if inadvertently so)

    I think the point is that there is no disjunction between the two; STEM and humanities complement each other.

  14. Pablo Campos says

    Forgot to add a few more things. The average salary of a Humanities major/scholar/professor is piss poor. Universities fund science programs much more often than projects involving the Humanities. The history department has to basically beg for money while the science and economics one just have to ask nonchalantly. The last problem are people like Pinker or Shermer who are the perfect symbol of science educaters who even complain that the Humanities and it’s scholars are “overpaid” and “over represented” while whining this is the reason science is being undermined. These kind of people tend to know nothing about historiography or religious processes but that doesn’t stop them from criticising fields they know nothing of. They are doing more damage for education and the quest for knowledge than they’re probably aware of. These additional things are more factors to the decline of the Humanities.

  15. Pablo Campos says

    I meant to say educators not “educaters”. My bad and ignore the mistake in my two comments. Probably made other mistakes but bear with me.

  16. Matrim says

    I think the slide towards al college as vocational school is only going to change if we make college considerably more affordable. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there aren’t too many people who can afford to spend $40-80K and four years of time if they don’t get a return on investment. I double majored in political science (specializing in political philosophy) and psychology, neither of which does you much good in the job market unless you go for a terminal degree, but I also had the GI bill so I paid exactly nothing but time for the experience. Used to be you could put yourself through college even on a minimum wage job, these days even community colleges are fairly pricey (my local CC charges approximately $2000 a semester for a full time class load).

    Unless we make college less expensive (or even gasp free), and don’t tie our standard of living to our education, it’s only going to get worse. If an out of state student wants to take a history course, they’re shelling out about $3500 for the privilege. That’s hard for a lot of people to justify (especially when you can just fire up your laptop and get dozens of college lectures for free).

  17. Chabneruk says

    Pretty sure that this is a result of the horrendous student loans you have to pay in your country. I finished my degree in journalism here in Germany – with a break of two years in which I simply worked and earned some money – and then I started another course of studies in English and History, while still working on the side. Now I have a 20-hour-job and time enough for some classes on Orwell and Robin Hood ballads on the side (it’s more like a hobby at the moment).

    All that never cost me more than 650 Euro (ca. 739 Dollar) per semester. At the moment, I am only paying about 200 Euro (227 Dollar). Yes, some people argue that the lack of pressure leads to people studying longer than they have to, but I don’t see that as a minus. After all, people really can get into their field of expertise if they want to and try out different venues if their first one did not work out.

    That being said, my first university also closed their history department and reduced the humanities to become a TU (technical university). A very controversial decision.

  18. rrhain says

    There’s a college way up north that’s made for you and me!
    M-U- DOUBLE-D!

    Harvey Mudd, the #1 college of science and engineering in the country (and most expensive… about $70K/year these days), requires all students to minor in the Arts or Humanities. One-third of coursework is in the Arts and Humanities (one-third in the major and one-third in the Core of math, physics, chemistry, engineering, computer science, and biology) with a Senior Seminar to be presented showing synthesis of your work in your minor. Mudd refuses to graduate scientists who don’t understand the effect that scientific work has on the world around us.

    Would that more institutions of higher learning understood this. The point of education is not to become a worker bee. Job skills are great and for those that seek to focus on such, there should be a strong vocational educational system. Continuing education is important, too. Those that want to earn just a minor in a subject should have that opportunity as well.

    But we call it a “university” for a reason: To be able to learn about everything. And to go to college with the goal of earning a Bachelor’s degree should be a commitment to learn broadly. No one school will be able to do everything. Mudd is a tiny school and uses the consortium of the other Claremont Colleges to supplement its Humanities departments (you wanna minor in Theatre like I did, you’re taking those classes at Pomona since Mudd doesn’t have any Theatre professors or facilities to seriously support it as a discipline), but there is a difference between benign neglect and outright abandonment.

  19. madtom1999 says

    I did a Bachelors in Electrical And Electronic Engineering. We had every morning and afternoon but Wednesday (sports day) filled with non-optional classes. I was a microchip designer for 10 years after that and the job fortunately allowed me to do a lot of research in a rapidly developing field. The company I worked for got privatised and rather than leave the UK (I’d done some work in the US and 80 hours twiddling my fingers waiting for management and to be seen to be keen was not my idea of a good career move) so I stayed with my reasonable working hours and warm beer. Over the following 30 years I have come to the conclusion that the humanities seems to provide people who can make bullshit sound feasible. Our UK government consist of mostly people educated in the Humanities and are inhumane and incapable of opening a door with PULL written on it in large letters if they have told someone they are going to push it.
    When I was at school I did sciences and my friends that did English for A level (16..18years old) had an awful reading books I read for pleasure. Contrarily I know many humanities graduates who I have had to help do the most simple computing tasks that their job requires but they are immune to logic and the realities of cause and effect and when these people are managing large parts of companies or even countries its a fucking nightmare.

  20. John Morales says


    Our UK government consist of mostly people educated in the Humanities…
    .. and when these people are managing large parts of companies or even countries…

    Heh. When I was at Uni, I personally saw the obligatory “tear off for Arts degree” above the toilet paper roll in a stall. Made me laugh.

    That said, do you ever wonder why you perceive them as the bulk of UK government and managers of large companies? Do you wonder how they succeed despite their purported lack of logic and their purported inability to open doors?

    (I think you don’t; but… isn’t real-life success indicative of something?)

    PS Again, the point is that the humanities are complementary (dare I say ‘synergistic’? ;) ) with STEM fields — there is no mutual exclusiveness, as you attempt to intimate.

  21. marinerachel says

    I don’t know where people find the time or money to take diverse courses. I couldn’t afford university so I DEFINITELY couldn’t afford to graduate with a degree that didn’t get me a job that enabled me to pay off my massive loans.

    There were no electives. First year required the completion of two English courses. Beyond that, it was bio and chem followed by two years of biology with an emphasis on ecology. Each semester was 15 to 18 credits. There was no time for First Nations studies or the history of hockey. There certainly wasn’t during the MSc either.

    I don’t feel harmed by it. I don’t feel incomplete because I never studied history or French beyond high school. I write very well. I’m well spoken.

    There was, though, a HUGE emphasis on communication, written and verbal, within the program I did. In the past a lot of students had graduated unable to communicate their work and had to spend years in limbo, trying to develop that ability after graduation. The curriculum was reworked so people such as myself graduated with better communication skills than some of our predecessors.

  22. Toklineman says

    I grew up in western Washington and remember that back in the 60s (IIRC) the UW’s very strong Engineering department realized that while they were turning out first-rate engineers, their graduates’ social skills and general knowledge were pretty much where their high schools had left them. To correct this, the department proposed extending the degree requirements to a fifth year in order to accommodate some humanities courses to expand their grads’ world views beyond those of their specialties. Engineering students opposed the plan en masse, being more interested in earning the big bucks after four years than in the possibility of earning more of them after five.
    One of my high school friends, with whom several of us had enjoyed passing time BSing, playing pinochle, and cooking and devouring steaks, became a ceramic engineer there. After four years of intense study, he had no conversation other than ceramic engineering, of which the only memorable tidbit he uttered was a description of the way in which toilets were glazed internally. This was a process we simple folk could understand. When he launched into discussions of the heat tolerance of various clay combinations, he left us too far behind to follow him. Apparently, he was never aware of this.

  23. numerobis says

    At Brown when I was there, the CS dept kept getting frowny-eyes from the administration because it demanded too many courses: of a standard 32 courses, the CS dept mandated 20 requirements, when the supposed limit was 16. They got away with it because the excess four courses were two humanities courses and two science courses; otherwise there was a risk that CS majors would sneer at the inferior other departments.

    I took the course requirements as a speed limit, and used all my electives on other departments. A bit extra math, a bit extra sciences, lots of extra humanities.

    Meanwhile, in Canada, my ex had zero distribution requirements — every single course she took was in her major, or a pre-req to a course in her major. It was dismal.

  24. bryanfeir says

    At the Engineering program I went to (U of Waterloo in Ontario) there was a requirement for half a year’s worth of non-technical electives, which were scattered throughout the four years. There were some explicitly approved courses (things like the basic Law and Ethics for Engineers courses) and some explicitly dis-approved courses (Philosophy 140, ‘Boolean Logic’, because if you couldn’t sleepwalk through that you shouldn’t have been in Engineering) but most non-tech courses were allowed to be part of that. You still needed at least some outside experience to graduate.

    Also, all Engineering at Waterloo was co-op, and you had to turn in reports based on your co-op experience, and a certain number of those reports had to get passing grades in order for you to graduate.

    It was certainly possible to graduate with as little experience as you could manage in anything outside of Engineering, but they did at least have some attempts at making sure you weren’t completely single-tracked.

  25. jrkrideau says

    Minor note on the Univ of Washington history department. There is a very strong emphasis on “Comparative Colonialism” and “Empire and Colonialism” in the interests the various professors declare.

    I wonder at selection priorities.

  26. jrkrideau says

    @ 26 bryanfeir
    It was not Philosophy 140 but I remember a philosophy student enrolling in a upper level logic course at UW. He come reeling into our lounge after the first lecture saying he was dropping the course. It was totally inhabited by upper year and graduate Computer Science people.

  27. says

    I’m happy to say that Central Washington University is expanding to fill niches that the larger universities are not, or are no longer, bothering with, including history, political science, philosophy and religious studies.

  28. call me mark says

    John Morales @#22:

    Do you wonder how they succeed despite their purported lack of logic and their purported inability to open doors?

    (I think you don’t; but… isn’t real-life success indicative of something?)

    In the UK? Never underestimate the power of the Old School Tie.

  29. says

    I believe in STEM but also the Humanities so this is disconcerting to me. Just more of the same do not care about anything buy yourself BS in this country imo.