IN MY OPINION: By limiting liberal arts education, UW-Stevens Point would short-change students

By 
PAULA KREBS

Here’s the takeaway: If you are a working-class student, a first-generation college student, someone without the means to get to a private college or to a public research university, then you should be channeled into job training.

This latest, and most frightening, move to segregate higher education into the haves and the have-nots is coming from, not surprisingly, Gov. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin.

The University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point, like most regional public comprehensive universities, primarily serves students within commuting distance, many of whom hold jobs while they pursue their degrees.

A new proposal from that university’s administration would eliminate the opportunity for its students to major in English, art, history, French, political science, geography and other majors while increasing opportunities in aquaculture, fire science, geographic information science, marketing and other non-humanities fields.

The message could not be clearer. Working-class and middle-class Wisconsin students should use their college years to focus narrowly on skills that will plug them into existing holes in the state’s workforce. The children of the state’s upper-middle class and rich, on the other hand, who have the opportunity to attend elite private colleges or public research universities, can spend four years discovering skills and knowledge that they can use in many different careers.

My daughter studies geography. She loves the information-science aspect of her work, but she wants a career in which the tech is in service of something larger that reflects the values and perspectives she’s forming in her liberal arts degree.

Part of Stevens Point’s failure to stand behind humanities and social sciences education is our own fault in the academy. We didn’t talk with our students about the range of skills and perspectives they were learning in addition to the course readings. They could be forgiven for thinking that all they learned in their Victorian Literature class was Victorian literature. They may have also learned to write, to work with feedback, to manage multi-part projects and to do public presentations, but we never pointed out how valuable those skills would be once they finished college.

We cannot, like Stevens Point would, limit liberal arts education to the elite and consign the rest of the country to more narrow vocational training. Advocates of the liberal arts must make clear why it is worth studying our subjects. And employers and policymakers must speak up for education in careful research and analysis, reading closely, writing well and understanding languages and cultures that the arts and humanities bring to our citizens and our workforce.

Paula M. Krebs is the executive director of the Modern Language Association, which advocates for the study and teaching of languages and literatures.

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