Where’s the humanity? Why are universities cutting liberal arts programs?

Naomi Hancock, Opinion Editor

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s an age-old question and something I –– just barely –– remember my early answers to. Being a doctor was the first one; an astronaut was the second. Oddly enough, I wasn’t interested in spaceships or medicine, but it was still the answer I knew my parents wanted to hear.

Despite my interests in reading, writing, and history, a career in the arts was never an option for nine-year-old me. The older I grew, the more I understood my own passions, but there was a lingering feeling of wrongness when I considered pursuing a college degree in the humanities. So I gravitated towards math classes and STEM-based applications, eventually settling on a social science that blended the natural sciences acceptable to most of my extended family. 

But through conversation with many of my college-bound classmates, I’ve realized that there is a reason that so many high school students feel a pull to STEM-related courses –– and only really since the late 1970s, commerce and banking. 

Our society markets college and higher education as a way to secure a financially stable future. We gravitate towards career fields that we know will always be there and are commercially successful. 

Doctors will always be in demand, and the work to become one is hard, so they are paid accordingly. Lawyers must have specialized knowledge and skills that they study long and hard for. 

And as our economy works to support more and more emerging entrepreneurs, who introduce new products and ideas, more students register for business school in hopes of following in the footsteps of thousands of other often-wealthy innovators. 

As a result, we’re observing a decrease in the popularity and availability of arts-based college programs, where a degree doesn’t always guarantee a job or financial security.

Schools like Howard College, the only historically black university with a classics department, decided to shut down their classics program in April 2021. In response to the outrage and protests, Howard insisted it was purely administrative. 

But Howard is just another school on a long list of universities cutting humanities programs, and it’s not for lack of effort –– it’s lack of participation. As general enrollment rises alongside a booming economy, humanities enrollments fall. But as general enrollment drops in a struggling economy, humanities enrollments nosedive.

From a financial perspective, it doesn’t make all that sense to supply expensive low-demand programs. If students don’t want to risk majoring in subjects like the classics that frequently lead towards underpaid careers in education, then there isn’t an incentive for schools to provide it. 

Except, universities were opened as spaces to gain access to literature, art, science, and culture but have now transformed into another cog in the corporate machine that ultimately trains professionals instead of educating scholars. 

Focus has strayed from knowledge to job security. It means that schools like Howard College, which was opened for Black, African, and American students to learn about their own histories to develop an educated worldview so they can become change-makers, are losing their purpose.

It means that we are in danger and that if we do not act to save the humanities, we may lose the most fundamental part of our society: our culture.