Letter from the President
Clouds have been gathering over American higher education for a long time, and the storm is now upon us. Colleges and universities are under assault from just about every quarter and for just about everything: admissions preferences; high cost; treatment of students (accusations run from coddling to indifference); protection of (or failure to protect) academic freedom; collusion with the purveyors of college rankings; putatively “woke” teaching of controversial subjects such as American history and human sexuality. And that’s a spare selection from a long list.
Whatever one thinks of the merits of the charges, these institutions are caught in the crossfire of an increasingly vicious culture war that is generating more heat than light.
At the heart of the conflict are the humanities—those fields of study in which students are asked to consider historical and aspirational ideas about individual and social life. Here, from just the last couple of years, is a random sampling of bad-news stories about the humanities, or, more broadly, the liberal arts:
Most recently, there’s been a spate of headlines about the decimation of the liberal arts at West Virginia University—an especially disturbing case because it signals the loss of support for liberal education in communities struggling with the effects of de-industrialization, and the consequent risk that such education will become a privilege restricted to sheltered elites.
Funereal stories about liberal education in general, and the humanities in particular, should come as no surprise at a time when the excitement of innovation belongs disproportionately to the STEM fields, and when more and more students, especially those from first-generation college families, cannot take for granted that a job, much less a career, awaits them. Those of us who defend liberal learning for all students can argue all we want that it builds skills for “the unknown jobs of the future,” but we’re up against a widespread conviction that this type of education represents an unaffordable deflection from preparing for the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace.
Yet while the bad-news stories about the state of the humanities are copious and clear, they are also insufficient and misleading. There is truth in the headlines—yes, majors in the humanities are falling; yes, humanities departments are contracting—but it is equally true that week after week, my colleagues and I at the Teagle Foundation are cheered by a contradictory reality, namely a growing commitment to liberal education in classrooms across the wide range of institutions with which we work.
So how to put these two facts together?
- at many institutions, the humanities are shrinking (as measured by major enrollments)
- at many institutions, the humanities are thriving (as manifest in student enthusiasm and faculty engagement)
Part of the answer is that while the numbers of departmental majors are declining, we are witnessing a revival of humanistic General Education as a vital part of the college experience.
The revival began in 2016 at Purdue University, a distinguished STEM-centric institution where, thanks to visionary administrative and faculty leadership, a program called Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts has transformed the liberal arts from a marginal—in some fields, moribund—sector into a thriving scene of innovative teaching and energized student engagement. I have elsewhere described how the seed planted at Purdue is spreading to campuses across the country, from Stanford University, where faculty from multiple departments—including the sciences—have committed to a sequence of courses with common readings required of all first-year students, to Vanderbilt University, where the faculty recently voted to launch a required first-year two-semester sequence of reading- and writing-intensive courses (the First-Year Core), in which students encounter a common set of key texts chosen collaboratively by faculty and drawn from various epochs and cultures.
Similar efforts to revitalize the humanities as part of general education are underway not only at research universities, but at a growing number of community colleges, where a large plurality of low-income and minority students begin their post-secondary careers; at Historically Black Colleges and Universities that continue to play an indispensable role in advancing the cause of racial equity; at regional public institutions, which, despite declining subsidies, remain drivers of hope for their local communities. The rapid growth across these sectors of the Cornerstone: Learning for Living initiative—funded in its first phase jointly by Teagle and the National Endowment for the Humanities—is a source of delight for me and my colleagues as we watch humanities faculty reach out beyond their home departments through Gen Ed to fledgling college students regardless of major field or career aspirations. We are also encouraged by the concurrent expansion of our Transfer Pathways to the Liberal Arts initiative, in partnership with the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, that is now supporting statewide transfer pathways for 170 independent colleges across 14 states. The promise of this initiative reflects the growing appeal of liberal arts colleges as destinations for community college transfer aspirants seeking to earn a bachelor’s degree from an institution whose mission is to provide students with more than strictly vocational education.
Our Cornerstone: Learning for Living and Transfer Pathways initiatives are hardly the only sources of good news over the past year. I was thrilled to visit a class at the City College of New York to join a discussion of Melville’s and Whitman’s New York with the inaugural cohort of New York City Fellows—a spectacular group of young people aiming toward lives of public service in their great city. The Fellowship offers this group of highly motivated undergraduates both the academic study and hands-on experience they will need to become the next generation of civic leaders in New York. The Teagle Foundation supports this work in coordinated funding with the Carroll and Milton Petrie Foundation, the Charles H. Revson Foundation, and Bloomberg Philanthropies.
It was also a delight for me to meet the inaugural class of “Freedom Scholars” at Elon University outside Greensboro, North Carolina, funded under our Knowledge for Freedom (KFF) initiative, which supports intensive humanities seminars for rising high school seniors in underserved communities, a program now hosted by nearly 30 colleges and universities. The Elon scholars, like their KFF counterparts across the country, are a dazzling cohort of talented young people who are bringing with them a keen sense of civic commitment as they head off to college.
What all these programs have in common is a determination to make the classroom a civil and purposeful community. As one of our grantees, Ted Hadzi-Antich Jr., founder of the “Great Questions Seminar” at Austin Community College, puts it, the genuine humanities classroom is “a small community in which everyone’s voice contributes to a collaborative pursuit of truth.” In what shows promise of becoming a sector-wide “best practice,” Austin Community College is providing students with the option of meeting the “Student Success” course requirement (prevalent at many community colleges) through the kind of course Hadzi-Antich and his colleagues have pioneered—a course organized around enduring works of literature and philosophy that speak to universal human questions. This is the kind of classroom the Teagle Foundation is committed to support—classes focused on primary texts and with enough commonality in the reading lists so that students across sections may discover mutual interests. These courses should be taught as much as possible by full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty who take seriously their calling as teachers and mentors.
All of Teagle’s work is designed to ensure that college classrooms remain places inhospitable to the rancor, suspicion, and cynicism that are poisoning America’s public life—places where reading and discussion foster historical consciousness, reflective listening, and the capacity for tolerance. Surely, people at all points along the political spectrum should be able to agree that these qualities are not only desiderata but necessities for a democratic society.
As I write, this work is progressing at a wide variety of institutions— community colleges, HBCUs, research universities, regional publics, liberal arts colleges—where young people of all origins and means bring to college a hunger for philosophical ideas and works of art, and for learning through literature and history about lives like and unlike their own. Their appetite for humanistic learning simply cannot be reconciled with the prevailing narrative that an entirely instrumental conception of college as job-training has triumphed in our country. To surrender to that narrative would be to cheat young people of something they not only need but want.
In short, reports of the death of the liberal arts are, as the phrase goes, greatly exaggerated. For me and my colleagues at the Teagle Foundation, it is a privilege to support the resilient faculty, far-sighted administrators, and hopeful students who are proving every day that those reports are dead wrong.
--Andrew Delbanco, President