President Speaks: How higher education can avoid leaving the humanities behind

Laura Walker is the president of Bennington College, in Vermont.

As the president of a liberal arts college in New England, I was particularly dismayed to learn late last year about the University of Vermont’s cuts to humanities programs on the heels of similar cuts at other institutions throughout the region.   

Data is cited for these cuts, of course, and that data indicates that enrollment in arts and humanities majors is shrinking. It points to the real financial pressures colleges and universities are facing, from reduced public funding to the prospect of smaller student populations. 

But, this data — the facts — often does not capture the invaluable and profound role the liberal arts play in shaping who we are as people. As Dan Chiasson points out in a recent essay for The New York Review, it is impossible to use enrollment data to measure the value of the “perception-altering insights” humanities programs provide.  

Ninety years ago, in the depths of the Great Depression, Bennington radically reimagined the liberal arts classroom as a laboratory for deep learning and rebuilding democracy in the United States. Now, in the midst of a pandemic and rising costs of attending college, we’re at it again, building on Bennington’s progressive values with a strong focus on the arts and humanities. 

Laura Walker is the president of Bennington College, in Vermont.

Permission granted by Bennington College

 

Self-directed learning, intellectual inquiry, academic rigor and creative expression are critical parts of our diverse and dynamic community; and we value science and public action as well as the humanities. At Bennington, we have no traditional majors and we ask our students to design their own courses of study, cross-pollinating the arts, sciences and humanities with other disciplines. The result is, we find, those “perception-altering insights.”

I’m new to the Bennington community. I arrived on campus last summer, following a long career in public media where I all too often found myself defending the importance of journalism and the arts, and facing the challenges of raising the funding to support these programs at New York Public Radio, in New York City 

What I have already learned in my time here at Bennington, and what I knew in public media, is that the study of the arts and humanities — to use a STEM analogy — is like a body’s tissue and arteries, binding all together and providing the nutrients to make everything function.  

At New York Public Radio, we often developed innovative solutions to advance the arts and humanities by partnering with other arts institutions and media. Whether it was developing programming with Carnegie Hall or The Public Theater, co-producing news programs with WGBH or ProPublica, or distributing our programs like Radiolab or On the Media to stations around the country, we were better together.      

What’s happening in Vermont requires us, and colleges throughout the country, to find innovative ways to educate our students for lives with deep meaning and to provide them with ways to be leaders in creating change. How can Bennington, a small college in the southern part of the state with a long-time focus on the humanities and the arts, work with UVM and other schools that are under pressure to make cuts to their liberal arts offerings? How can UVM and others with large research centers and significant STEM funding create mutually beneficial partnerships with liberal arts colleges throughout their state?

Some ideas include building joint areas of study and exchanges in which students can take advantage of the course offerings of a variety of institutions; developing fellowship programs for students to study humanities during the summer or post-graduation; or humanities programs designed specifically for business majors or healthcare workers. These partnerships seem especially promising in light of the pandemic because we are all much more comfortable with online learning, though we certainly know the limitations as well.  

Of course, partnerships will not save struggling institutions and some will not survive this era. But at Bennington, we plan to thrive by strengthening, not diminishing, our commitment to the arts and humanities at a time when they are critically needed. That may mean colleges change the way they fundraise, especially for schools like ours that must look for support outside of our communities. It may also mean a different structure for postsecondary education, with smaller schools providing instruction in critical areas, especially the humanities. We need to support one another.   

To be sure, students want to develop skills for successful careers. But before too many humanities courses are cut, let’s also deeply consider other data: Students steeped in the humanities bring immense value to the workplace — a larger perspective that sparks creativity, complex problem-solving skills and the ability to change course to consider new perspectives. But there is an additional value: how they engage throughout life as citizens and the conceptual frameworks they learn that enable them to develop bold scenarios for the future, from addressing climate change to contending with what we have recently seen in Washington, D.C.  

Let’s not be too quick to dismiss the humanities. Instead let’s embrace them as an essential part of the future, as many employers have realized. Tech companies are turning to students with degrees in the liberal arts because they value the perspectives they bring. Future of work strategist Heather McGowan has argued convincingly that as artificial intelligence takes over even more tasks beyond the routine, there will be a new premium on employees who can think strategically and conceptually to find new solutions.

At Bennington, we’ve long believed that it is the intersection of disciplines, grounded in the humanities, and the real-life application of those studies, that leads to success in the labor market and in life. Some labor studies suggest that as graduates with liberal arts degrees learn how to apply their skills and articulate the benefits of their education, they see a rise in wage and job prospects, though these gains are often over the course of a career and not immediately upon graduation. As an institution, we have an obligation to collect this data and to share it with other institutions, funders and students. Only then will the change happen.

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