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Last month, I wrote in the magazine about how the humanities are shrinking at research universities through a process of resource allocation (“The Two Universities”). Students are drifting elsewhere, and administrators see no reason to invest in declining programs. When humanities professors retire, they aren’t replaced with new tenure-track lines. In a few cases, when the diminishment isn’t happening fast enough, programs are consolidated or shut down entirely.

Last week we learned that the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point proposes to discontinue thirteen majors, including English, history, French, German, American studies, philosophy, and Spanish. Courses will continue to be taught in those areas, but they won’t count toward majors, only as general education classes.

The rationale, according to the university, is student preference. (See this document for the strategic thinking behind the action.) The programs on the chopping block are “under-enrolled majors,” and they must be eliminated if the school is “to repair our budget and simultaneously fund the creation and expansion of programs with higher student demand.” If English drew more students, it would merit continued existence. If lots of sophomores wanted to enroll in English classes but found them already full, the administration would receive complaints and respond accordingly. There doesn’t seem to be such demand here.

I know some people who believe that administrators look forward to cutting resources for the humanities. Administrators have a corporate mentality, the argument goes, and humanities professors teach students to challenge it. I consider that assumption delusional, but even if we accept it, the point changes nothing. College leaders are bureaucrats before they are ideologues. They do what saves time and money and makes life easier. If humanities professors filled their classes, it would be very hard for an administrator to act on his anti-humanist bias. He doesn’t want to pick fights with the faculty and make enemies of the students as well. Undergraduate demand, if it existed, would remove any logistical explanation for the cuts.

Under-enrollment, however, allows college leaders to objectify their decisions. “It’s all a matter of money,” they can say. You can’t argue with a dean who shows enrollments in a department dropping steadily, especially when costs have held firm (because faculty haven’t left or retired at a rate that corresponds to enrollment drops).

This puts humanities professors in an uncomfortable position. They must become entrepreneurs, and they don’t know how. You know that’s true because of the directions the humanities have taken over the years. Does anybody who isn’t a true believer think that intersectionality theory is going to increase enrollments? How many nineteen-year-olds will be drawn to Queer Theory? When a student who loved Jane Austen in high school enters English 200 with great expectations, only to be hectored about imperialism and sexism in Victorian England, she likely won’t come back. Or, to take another popular claim among the humanists, how many students will say in earnest, “Hey, they teach critical thinking over there—that’s exciting—I’m in!”?

Humanities professors have forgotten the first principle of undergraduate study in the humanities: inspiration. Students come because the material compels them. They may love modern novels, or a high school teacher may have turned them on to Renaissance art or the Civil War. They want greatness and beauty and sublimity. Professors should tell students that they have on their syllabi the works of the ages. Why not play up the classics? Forget critical thinking, workplace readiness, and verbal skills. Highlight Hamlet, Elizabeth Bennet, and the Invisible Man. Reach out to freshmen with an invitation to the Pantheon of genius and talent. March in to college curriculum meetings and announce that everyone must take a course in Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and Mozart. Take students to dinner and pass along your enthusiasm in a non-class setting. …

That’s what it will take to reverse the slide, and I hope my colleagues realize it.

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

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Photo by self via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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