Rewind Western history about seven centuries and Italy is a mega-center of thought and the most promising center of human achievement in Renaissance Humanism. People were inspired to rise up intellectually from the Dark Ages and think for themselves. The era was filled with the study of the humanities — rhetoric, reading ancient texts and writing literature that provoked thought.
Today it seems like the emphasis put on math and science in our country has made students satisfied with learning by sitting in lecture and simply regurgitating facts on multiple-choice Scantrons in a mindless Dark Age of their own. Either that or the encouragement math and science students get has warranted their claims that students like myself studying the humanities are “lost souls” or that their degrees are “worthless.”
With math and science majors, their degrees make them highly qualified to many employers because those fields are directly related to the profitable technology industry. These types of students get through college studying the Krebs cycle and the calculus of motion only to reiterate it for their professors on their exams before forgetting it weeks later when a couple thirsty Thursdays wipe their memories clear, leaving them space for new information. Sure, they can dazzle with Darwin’s theory and calculate quantum physics, but in the area of critical thinking, they seem to be lacking.
The reason why this kind of an education is valuable is because the university receives funds and grants from the government and money from corporations to invest in research, which is notably the one valued product of intense study in medical and engineering fields.
A recent Wisconsin State Journal article reported that there is a $30,000 disparity in UW-Madison’s salaries between underappreciated employees in the humanities-related departments and their well-to-do counterparts in other fields. For once, it seems that such an issue isn’t the university’s fault because the university is doing the right thing in allocating the same amount of funds to each area of study. The reason for such a disparity is because federal funds and grants are pouring into the fields of math and science because technology is ostensibly going to save our economic situation. Meanwhile, there are students in college who can’t write a simple essay and nearly illiterate middle-school students.
An effect of this difference in dollars that is more worrisome to the university is that we are losing some of the best professors in the humanities because they know they can teach elsewhere, at small liberal arts colleges or even other Big Ten schools that can provide more for their expertise. This lack of competition cheats humanities students of their tuition while the math and science undergrads are taught by some of the best in the country and are really getting their money’s worth.
The lacking support of the arts can even be seen in the landscape of the campus. It seems like our professors suffering in the Humanities building are locked inside its aged and prison-like exterior while the Microbial Science building and the Chemistry building make an onlooker squint while they gaze at their gem-like appearance. Even the Overture Center for the Arts down State Street — one of the best music and arts halls in the country — is facing financial problems.
Hopefully some relief will come from Chancellor Biddy Martin, who has spoken openly in support of all areas of study and for every student on campus, whether he or she may be studying engineering or even German literature, which Martin pursued for her undergraduate degree. She hopes to continue plans to renovate the humanities and arts for the university in addition to being a strong proponent of the idea of the humanities as part of a well-rounded and complete education.
It also seems that with a newly elected president, students at the university can expect change. Barack Obama has devoted a great deal of his efforts in speaking to students about how they can expect to see college become more affordable and how education in general will be reformed under his leadership.
In his “Platform in Support of the Arts” from his website, Barack Obama has pledged to reinvest in art education, something that combines two things that many think are useless — being an artist and being a teacher. However, his devotion to the arts helps cultivate creativity and culture in students that otherwise would be too distracted with technology to care.
In what may seem like a conclusion that is characteristic of the humanities and of Barack Obama, all we can really do as students is hope for something better for ourselves as critical thinkers. We need to defend our education as worthwhile and pursue the humanities because we like to do what we like and leave the rest to do the math. In the end, the humanities capture what the rest cannot, and that is, what it means to be human in this chaotic world.
Patrick Johnson ([email protected]) is a freshman majoring in English and Journalism.