Opinion: Importance of humanities in higher ed
February 1, 2013By Jess Boersma
Oh, the Humanities: An open invitation to our governor and state leadership
Much has already been said – if not shouted back and forth across the so-called forums – regarding our newly-elected governor's vision of the UNC system. I’m not here to shout; rather, I'm pretty optimistic about where UNCW is headed.
Don't get me wrong. I'm troubled by much of what Gov. McCrory and his fellow liberal-arts-degree-carrying Dr. Bennett had to say; it strikes me as rather opportunistic, polarizing and short-sighted.
On the other hand, I, just as most every other UNCW colleague and taxpayer I know, am very concerned about improving upon the concerns that another former governor and current president of Purdue, Mitch Daniels, has distilled into the categories of excellence, affordability, shared governance, engagement and common purpose.
After all, what good American wouldn't be in favor of providing our students, our children, our fellow Americans, with an excellent and affordable education that supports our community's needs for civically engaged, globally competitive graduates?
Simply put, my fear is instead that our governor and many state legislators are missing the boat when it comes to UNCW. In fact, I'd like to invite the governor and any other concerned taxpayer to come visit Wilmington’s extended campus and see what's actually happening in our classrooms, our laboratories and in all the places throughout southeastern North Carolina and beyond where UNCW is transforming education and contributing to the economy.
In spite of year after year of reduced state funding, UNCW remains among the top institutions regarding such measures as quality of education to cost. At the same time, we can boast of world-class researchers, educators and staff whose volunteer work had an impact of almost $2 million in 2010-11, and whose intellectual capital helped generate over $1 billion of economic activity into the local economy.
These and many more points of pride are easily available to any interested reader online, but I'd like to highlight but a few, more personalized examples of what we do so well at UNCW.
To start with, the idea that the university needs to break down the walls between the classroom and the "real world" is already old news here at Wilmington.
Rather than a political talking point, UNCW has taken a decades-long tradition of engaging students outside the traditional classroom and made applied learning a centerpiece of a very rigorous, external accreditation process that helps determine our fate as a university.
Each semester, UNCW faculty successfully implement one applied learning project after another in which students work on problems that have direct applicability to future jobs.
Faculty from the School of Nursing and Computer Science work together to provide future nurses with access and training with items such as Electronic Health Records that will help provide better care and lower costs for patients.
In Biology, professors short on resources pool students together on directed independent study projects so that they can learn from each other as they work to clone and characterize new forms of glycoproteins.
In the Cameron School of Business, students are supervised as they are allowed to manage the $1 million BB&T fund and defend their investment decisions in front of a university council.
And yes, even those supposedly impractical Humanities find myriad ways to get students to apply their learning.
English faculty, for example, teach students to design and then pitch their websites and brochures to local business owners who, in turn, give crucial feedback and use the winning projects to promote their own businesses.
Spanish graduate and undergraduate students volunteer in local K-12 schools, gaining proficiency at the same time they help prepare our youth to communicate in an increasingly globalized world and lend a hand to teachers dealing with ever-increasing class sizes.
The list goes on and on, and I apologize to all my colleagues and departments whom I haven't included here.
Since it's once again the liberal arts component of the university that seems to animate the naysayers into offering countless dour and dire proclamations of the state of our/their culture through topics such as the subsidizing of supposedly useless areas of inquiry such as gender studies, various ethnic studies or just the Humanities in general, I'd also like to add a few additional points to many of the other responses already offered elsewhere.
First, and following Brian Rosenberg's argument, I agree that as important as future economic success is, it is not only not the sole end of a university education, but that it is not the sole end of our society, that is, if we're still to take the initial words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as guides.
Second, while we have many indicators of where the 21st-century global economy may take us, we can only project how we might best meet these needs. So yes, let’s continue to adapt and do our best to give students the tools they’ll need as UNCW has done in so many ways, including its dedication to applied learning. Many of these tools indeed should be valued according to their immediate use value.
Yet, as so many past vaunted economic predictions and so many more actual personal career and life plans can attest, there are no guarantees when it comes to what jobs people will have access to or will want to do during their economically productive years.
A liberal arts education, while also offering additional ways toward the pursuit of happiness and general welfare, also provides more generally applicable competencies that span across vocational and disciplinary boundaries. Perhaps the only guarantee one could make is that an education in which only the immediately useable and the task-specific is taught will force students to start largely all over again should they be put in the situation where their job has become obsolete, undesirable or otherwise lost to larger market forces.
Finally, the knowledge itself that one can acquire in fields such as history, cultural studies, literature, foreign languages, international studies and yes, gender studies is viewed as valuable or useful not only in the granola-eating, tree-hugging world that is supposedly liberal academia, but also in lucrative world of international business or the deadly serious world of law enforcement, security, intelligence and foreign policy.
For example, many UNCW students who are successfully recruited for competitive jobs in the latter fields are desirable precisely because of the critical thinking, communication and cultural analysis skills they gain from taking classes in the Humanities in addition, and not in exclusion to more "direct" skills from other disciplines.
In short, from a well-rounded education.
In fact, to grab a more specific example from a world that is often too conveniently placed in diametrical opposition to academia, there has been a push by leaders in the intelligence community to not just promote, but expand the United States’ sociocultural analysis capabilities in order to better understand potential conflicts before they turn violent.
Gender issues in Egypt matter, as do religious schisms in Mali or cultural identity politics in Catalonia.
It would seem then, that the rich and diverse array of classes that a liberal arts curriculum entails is not subject to an either/or scenario in which useful vs. useless are the only categories of judgment for investing in public education in North Carolina.
Rather, studying philosophy, Spanish literature, history, gender issues, racial politics – alongside finance, biology, computer sciences – can be intellectually invigorating, and/or economically useful, and/or a tool for promoting civic values and peace both domestic and international.
For me, UNCW is a place that embraces all these activities and many more. It is also a leader in implementing innovative ways that foster research, support our regional community and prepare our students to tackle the challenging but very exciting world that awaits them.
Governor McCrory, don't try and sink the boat. Get on board.
(Dr. Jess Boersma is the director of the team for Interdisciplinary Global Research and assistant professor in Spanish at UNCW, as well as a two-time Applied Learning Faculty Fellow and Engaged Teaching Fellow. He is the editor of two volumes on literature and society and is currently principal investigator on two funded external grants, one on applied learning and civic development with the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the other with the U.S. Government concerning language, regional expertise and culture.)