A few months after the end of spring quarter classes in 2016, one of my former Northwestern University students emailed that he had found an old copy of the essays of 16th-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne on a trip to France.
This pre-med and French double major wrote that this text he studied in my class would “reside proudly on my bookshelf or in my hands for the rest of my life.”
Because I am a professor of Renaissance literature, many ask me what the use is of studying literature, and how it can possibly lead to a job. True, it is likely that no employer has ever quizzed an applicant about Montaigne or William Shakespeare in a job interview. But erasing the wisdom of literary icons from the college curriculum does not make anyone more employable. It may actually hurt.
Recent news of a proposal by University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point administration to cut 13 majors in the humanities and social sciences including English, Philosophy, History, Political Science, American Studies, Spanish, French and German, in favor of programs with “high-demand career paths” strikes hard.
The reaction on the campus of 8,200 students in one of the country’s largest state systems resulted in a town hall of students, faculty and members of the community expressing concern.
This one campus is not alone in targeting the liberal arts.
In February, the White House proposed a budget that would “begin shutting down” the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Thankfully, the recently passed spending bill averts these cuts.
Yet criticism of the humanities seems commonplace among policymakers. That is in the face of contrary evidence including a recent study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences showing that humanities graduates have similar rates of employment and job satisfaction than those in other fields.