There have been a significant number of articles in the past few years arguing for the importance of the liberal arts and the humanities in particular. Many of these have been in reaction to claims that humanities majors have little prospect for employment. All of them appear to focus on the usefulness of studying the humanities. The College of Liberal Arts faculty—I am a member—at Mercer University has carried out similar conversations about why the liberal arts are important and how we can get that message out to people. For a bit of context, our biology major is the largest in the college and routinely we have near seventy percent of our entering classes identifying a pre-health track and biology as the major of choice. The pre-health tracks require a heavy science and math sequence so those departments are under enormous strain. We know that not all of the seventy percent who enter as pre-med or pre-pharm will complete the requisite courses, but we continue to sell those graduate programs to eighteen-year-olds and their families. This issue dominates most of our attention, and this spring is no different as we were informed just before the end of the semester that the admissions office succeeded in reaching their paid deposit goal for next year’s entering class. For the sixth or seventh straight year, we will bring in our largest group of first-year students, which might top nine hundred (the goal was eight hundred and fifty). Our graduate programs in the health fields are a natural draw for families. Many families see the hefty cost worth the effort to give their students an advantage for the graduate programs. It is a soft sell but effective.
While sitting through the commencement exercises two weeks ago, however, I had a strange realization. After the speeches, we turned to the calling of names, which is a proud moment for all of the families in attendance. Faculty do all kinds of things like read, knit, doodle, and search for “my” student(s) during this process since it can take almost an hour for all the names to be read. This year, however, I was struck by the spacing of the name in the program. The College of Liberal Arts is the largest by number of all of the traditional undergraduate programs at Mercer and so I have come to expect that we have the most names of the list. The degree, however, conferred most frequently two Saturday’s ago was the Bachelor of Arts by sixty students. Wait . . . did I count correctly?
Yes, I counted all the names under the College of Liberal Arts three times to make sure. With one hundred and eighty-plus names listed, the B.A. outpaced B.S. degree by sixty-some students. Considering the number of our students who earn a B.S. also complete a B.A., the humanities and even science B.A. programs are doing just fine. Except that is not what we are told by those outside university life or by our administrators. The liberal arts more generally and the humanities in particular are under threat from all sides it seems. My oldest child when asked by a complete stranger in a store what he was majoring in at Mercer (wearing his t-shirt) said he was thinking about History and the stranger said, “What are you going to do with that?” Journals and magazine committed to higher education remind us daily that the liberal arts are under attack because none of the fields are practical. On the university level we are reminded in the yearly hiring process that since we can’t generate high numbers of seat-hours particularly at the upper-level courses like the sciences and engineering our administrators tell us they have a hard time justifying the additional hires. But B.A. majors graduate more students so something is wrong in their narrative; we appear to be fighting the wrong battle. Looking at the internal numbers for Mercer, I have missed this point for the past ten years. B.A. degrees have always outpaced B.S. degrees.
Dr. Sarah E. Gardner, one of my colleagues in the History department, put it this way: maybe administrators tell the story they want to occur rather than the reality they have. Given the large new science building we are building and its price tag, we need more graduates who hold a B.S. than a B.A. It appears that the national selling point of STEM is that if we all say it enough everyone will decide that is what we need to do. I will note here that our current science building is a disaster and the science faculty see themselves as part of the liberal arts and not SCIENCE—scary caps intended to show science unhinged from liberal arts—often teaching and leading in the college’s Great Books program as well as across the spectrum of our integrative general education programs. Administrators may want a science-heavy entering class because those students are easy to recruit with our professional schools in medicine, pharmacy, and other health related fields, but that is not the story that comes out on the other end. We don’t seem to be telling that story.
So maybe humanists, social scientists, and even our scientists have been fighting the wrong battle. Our programs are relevant and students flock to them, usually after realizing that their inability to do calculus and chemistry mean their life-long goal of being a doctor is not possible. We can convince parents that the other options for majors are just as important. The story we tell should be about graduates who become journalists and report on the clandestine activities of white supremacists and don’t back down when threatened or even kidnapped because to quiet journalists is to spread darkness in a democracy. Talk about our bright graduates who focus on Southern Studies because they want to better understand the place where they were born, raised, and know its potential but can’t look back to a time when it was great. One of those graduates fights an uphill battle every day so that marginalize citizens within the LGBTQ community in Alabama understand that they are not alone in their struggle for equality. The major did not lead to a job but allowed the students to incorporate vast amounts of information into a coherent worldview and they went to find a job that let them do that kind of work. Or the graduate who went to law school and now teaches at Mercer’s law school and advocates for defendants’ rights, showing compassion on those society most abhors. Maybe the most important thing we change is the student, and that might be the greatest challenge we face in recruiting students. The jobs argument is a polite way to say that the liberal arts focus challenges social norms and knowledge at its core.
During Mercer admissions recruitment events or on our admissions’s website, young people are shown a video describing Mercer. Notice that we sell our engineering and science programs, our Mercer on Mission programs, and our athletic programs.
All of these things are fantastic, but none of them suggest that history, literature, religion, or fine arts (and insert all of the social sciences) have any role to play in helping students address complex problems with relevant solutions. Except those fields of study are how we help students understand that their world is a complex place and that prior attempts at making the world a better place (our tag line) have not always been good or even helpful. The problem is that we have placed the university in a market-driven system where the markets are fictitious at best. In fact, by taking courses in the humanities and social sciences along with the natural sciences student students will learn to be critical about the way the story is told to them. They will learn to ask questions like, what do we mean by changing the world? Past missionary enterprises came with western political and military support, do we need to change the world to look like us? Is the only way to “help people” to become a doctor? Why does my learning have to be attached to a job? Will my parents support me if I would rather study history, art, or religion? Given that our entering classes continue to grow, the marketing formula might not need to be tweaked. But during the commencement exercises a few weeks ago, I realized we are telling a public story different from the one we actually live. It might be time to be honest about why we keep telling the narrative we are sharing with families across the the United State about what we do at Mercer. The humanities may be under attack but those faculty are the very ones who know how to frame arguments. Maybe it is time for us to push back against the consumer culture that commodifies everything, including education.