On the Wisconsin Idea and the Crisis in the Humanities

This week there was a large kerfuffle in Wisconsin after Gov. Scott Walker tried to strike, or after one of his staffers made a drafting error (whichever narrative you choose to believe), the “Wisconsin Idea” from the mission of the UW system. The paragraph in question:

36.01 (2) The mission of the system is to develop human resources to meet the state’s workforce needs, to discover and disseminate knowledge, to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society by developing develop in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional and technological expertise, and a sense of purpose. Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.

There has been a lot of liberal outrage over these changes—even more, I think, than there’s been outrage over his proposed budget cuts (which just goes to show how protective people are of their collective identies, informed by myth)—and for good reasons outlined by many other people.

However: I think the university in general, and the non-STEM pieces of it in particular, need to recognize the beam in their eye in addition to the mote in Walker’s.

Specifically, we should do a better job of extending knowledge and its application, illustrating how and why liberal arts education enhances, to use Walker’s words, “humane sensitivities, scientific, professional and technological expertise, and a sense of purpose” among all citizens of the state. By coincidence, at the end of this week of defensive posturing on behalf of the Wisconsin Idea, my own humanities/social science department had our monthly meeting, in which a few faculty members professed themselves alarmed and befuddled by rapidly declining enrollments, even in classes that satisfy writing credits required of all undergraduates.

It’s not enough to bemoan the general malaise afflicting the humanities, or to blame the sentiment behind Walker’s words that the best path to personal economic success and international dominance is unrelenting emphasis on STEM. Students don’t sign up for compositional writing classes not just because the university doesn’t announce them clearly or because they’re all trying to become engineers out of parental, societal, or economic pressure (though surely these are factors as well). Students don’t sign up for classes like ours because we don’t do a very good job of advocating for their qualitative utility. All kinds of scientific studies have emerged recently suggesting what humanities fields have known for some time, things like narratives matter and there’s a relationship between developing empathy and reading fiction. I welcome studies like these: anything that can help us make our argument palatable is good news. But we have to actually make the argument, inside the university and out.

Instead of getting huffy and defensive, let’s start putting the Wisconsin Idea into action, both inside the university and out.

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