I recently sent the following letter to the President of the university where I teach, and copied several other VPs and interested parties. President Bassett has asked that all faculty, staff, and board members have access to and read this letter, so I post it here in its entirety:
Dear President Bassett,
I’m sure you’re aware of the fraught state of humanities departments across the country. Prominent national newspapers and journals run articles almost weekly debating the value of the liberal arts, lamenting or celebrating the demise of the philosophy major, the music major, the English major. Humanities students have become higher education’s easiest joke.
As a lifelong student of both the liberal arts and the fine arts, my loyalties are predictable. Even as my contract with Heritage University is about to end, I remain grateful for my broad education that has not only made me a better person, but has provided me a multitude of marketable skills that translate easily to a wide range of occupations. Please don’t misunderstand me. This letter is not a plea for my job, or the jobs of the rest of our humanities department. Rather, my plea is for the future and mission of Heritage University as we decide what kind of institution it will become.
I’m discouraged by the lack of acknowledgment of the humanities’ value in our conversations as an institution and in the proposed Academic and Financial Plan that will lead us into the next decade. Any path that neglects the liberal arts is shortsighted if our mission is to create lasting change in the community we serve.
My argument is not necessarily that we need more English majors, history majors, theology and philosophy majors (although I think we do), but that – especially in this valley we’ve promised to serve, where the need for change is so great – we need biologists, engineers, environmental scientists, healthcare workers, educators, criminal justice advocates, social workers, and business leaders who can look at this specific place and moment in a complex historical, social, economic, and ethical context and ask: How did we get here? Why do we lack resources? Why is our crime rate so high? Why are there so many broken families? Why are our infants dying at shocking rates and what systemic injustices lie behind those reasons? In short, why is our population so vulnerable, so precarious, and how can we repair it in ways that are transformative and lasting? As a university serving an under-resourced community, we must produce graduates who understand the bigger picture. We need graduates who can creatively problem-solve by using a cross-disciplinary lens, and who are then able to – and this is perhaps the most important piece – articulate those solutions in an accessible and persuasive way. Big ideas are of little use if you’re unable to express them effectively.
That’s what scholarship in the humanities does. Without the humanities, we are simply raising a generation of workers who keep their heads down, focused on earning the next paycheck (and spending it again), who perform the same jobs over and over in the same ways that reinforce entrenched systems of injustice. Without the humanities, social and economic progress remains static. The humanities teach us to question and, once we find the easy answers, to pull on the threads that lead us to even deeper, more important questions. History, literature, philosophy, anthropology, fine arts, and cultural studies show us how other people have wrestled with similar problems in other times and places. These disciplines foster creativity. They forge unanticipated links. They insist we examine ourselves and the parts we play in systems of injustice. The humanities give us a voice.
I’m not simply offering a leftist English professor’s idealized, inflated notion of her own importance. This is what studying the liberal arts has done for me. I am the first and only person in my family – immediate and extended – to graduate from college. My father dropped out of high school early. My grandparents migrated from Appalachia where my ancestors were coal miners and subsistence farmers, with no time or energy to think beyond the basic needs of life. My father struggled to provide for a large family without a high school diploma, drifting from one blue-collar job to another that wore his body out prematurely. At the base of Arizona’s Superstition Mountains, we ate rattlesnakes and jackrabbits. My mother canned prickly pears. We spent weekends fanned out over hills picking jojoba beans, then sat around the kerosene heater in the evenings (because we sometimes lacked electricity) to shell them and prepare them for the market. Although my mother was careful to nurture a love of learning and a sense of curiosity, my cultural background did not emphasize formal education, particularly for girls. I was raised to believe the best thing I could be in this life was a wife and mother, that focusing on anything else would only take away from this inherent calling. In fact, it wasn’t until my mid- to late-20s that I even began to consider following another path, a path for which I had no example, no mentors, no experience. By choosing an education and a career (in addition to marriage and motherhood), I became something slightly alien to my family. I still worry that in their eyes, I have turned my back on my cultural values.
This is what I have found myself trying to hide – even from myself – as I build a career in academia: unlike so many of my colleagues, I come from poverty. I’ve learned to adopt the mannerisms of a different social class, but at my center I am still a little girl standing with bare feet on the cracked clay of Arizona, with West Virginia dogwoods, an Appalachian drawl, and the survival instincts of hundreds of years etched into my very DNA. It took me a long time to discover that, perhaps, this DNA is not weakness but strength.
There are many ways in which I differ from my students, but this I understand: I understand what it’s like to be the generation that bridges two cultures. I understand that sometimes parents are scared of progress and our students struggle against that fear. Sometimes our students feel like they’re betraying the people they love most, betraying their roots. Sometimes our students want to outrun their pasts, to put as much distance behind them as possible, and I know from experience they will someday need to make peace with their origins even as they set their faces to the future. On the other hand, I also understand how exciting it is when they start seeing the world through different eyes, when they become aware of the world beyond the confines of family and immediate culture, when they start understanding the forces at play in their lives, and – here’s the best part – seeing how they can make their families and communities stronger, better, kinder, and more just.
This generation of students we serve at Heritage University are looking backward and forward all at once. My students are strong, resilient, motivated, and alight with the desire to change the world. They are powerful, but often don’t realize it. They want to understand the world. They want financial security, certainly, but they want more than that. They instinctively sense what they’ve been denied and they are thirsty.
If we are going to empower our students to become the voices of their communities, they must first become self-aware. There is no better place for this process than in the humanities. Some argue that the humanities can be rolled into discipline-specific courses. When this is attempted, however, the broad, cross-disciplinary scope of the traditional liberal arts education – the education this institution explicitly advertises in its mission statement – is short-circuited and lost.
For example, in my Comparative World Literature course, I encourage my students to tie literary themes to (1) issues within this community and (2) their own chosen field of study. The results, both within the classroom and in their writing, continue to amaze and delight me. One Environmental Science student linked letters written by Christopher Columbus and Hernando Cortés to global agricultural trends that are dismantling biodiversity and devastating farmers particularly in impoverished nations. She intends to use her work from my literature class to inform her research into why Mexican farmers from her family’s home town are no longer using indigenous farming practices and what impact the loss of traditional ecological knowledge is having in this Mexican community as well as here in the Yakima Valley. Through a close study of literature, the scope of this student’s research has widened to address global inequalities and could potentially revolutionize the way we feed the world. Will she do that with an English degree? Possibly, but not likely. But a semester in a diverse literature class will impact the way she processes the material from her science courses in significant ways.
A Social Work student, working from Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, focused her research on the ways American slaveholders intentionally broke families apart, taking infants from mothers, husbands from wives, sisters from brothers. She made interesting connections between this historical practice and the work of Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid and how a culture of poverty, violence, and rigid gender norms drive wedges into mother-child relationships. I suggested she look into the Dawes Act of 1887, the express purpose of which was to break tribal and familial bonds among American Indians so they could be more easily assimilated. This Social Work student is now building research on the current failings of our foster system, and how these failings have origins in racist practices and perspectives.
These moments are why I love doing what I do: the moments when my students suddenly see themselves in Frederick Douglass, in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, in Frantz Fanon and Franz Kafka; when they find unexpected elegance and shared humanity inscribed in the suras of the Qur’an; when they examine creation myths and realize how the stories we grow up with shape who we are and how we see the world in unique ways and that there are other ways of seeing that are just as valuable, just as layered, just as true; when they analyze and synthesize and apply and create. That’s when I stop being my students’ voice, and they find their own. Their own informed voices are what will heal this valley.
The exciting part of my work is that I never know what ideas the assigned reading will spark in my students. Further, I never know what these ideas, shared in class, may spark in another student from a different discipline or cultural space. It’s my job to select the widest range of texts possible, texts that are provocative and nuanced, that offer both windows and mirrors for my students, then step back and watch creativity do its transformative work in ways I could never orchestrate or control. Courses within the majors don’t have this luxury – the ability to place students from all fields together in one room to share ideas, knowledge and lived experiences. Professors in specific disciplines have neither the instructional time nor the training to select diverse activities within the liberal arts that will foster this kind of unexpected creativity and interdisciplinary problem-solving.
Vocational and technical schools might produce students who can earn a paycheck, but they don’t produce agents of social progress. Without careful consideration of the role of the humanities in our students’ education, I fear that is where Heritage University is heading.
As you move forward with a plan for the university, I hope you consider fully what it means to offer a liberal arts curriculum. I hope that Heritage University’s humanities offerings are more than marketing material, more than a convenient blurb in our mission statement, more than a glossy photo on a brochure. If that’s all the humanities are at this university, we have no right to advertise ourselves as a liberal arts college. Without solid funding for the liberal arts, without exemplary, dedicated, valued liberal arts faculty, without leaders who have broad, far-sighted vision and champion the way the humanities can close – have closed – the achievement gap in underserved communities, Heritage is nothing more than a vocational school.
I’ve been told that studying the humanities is a privilege for a few. I agree. But let’s not kid ourselves: in the United States, studying any discipline at a four-year university is a privilege for a few. Nonetheless, our mission demands that we extend privilege to the underprivileged. This is why we have such dedicated faculty and staff. We believe deeply, passionately in that mission. Please consider the ways a true liberal arts education can move us toward that vision.
Crystal A. Bevers