By Penny Smith

Last week the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point announced that it was considering eliminating 13 humanities majors, including English and History. They would be replaced by “clear career pathways.” The announcement echoes an earlier attempt by Wisconsin’s Governor, Scott Walker, to shift the mission of the state’s higher education institutions away from such arcane and unimportant things as a “search for truth” and to “improve the human condition” to a more solid-sounding “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

Calls to eliminate or reduce the importance of the liberal arts in the college curriculum have been with us almost since the beginning of the modern university. What’s the point of two years of general study in things that will never be part of your major? (And, yes, I know most colleges do a terrible job in developing those two years of general study, but that’s another topic.) Given that higher education is so expensive today and given that there is little likelihood that we will reduce that expense in the near future, why not let students focus exclusively on what will get them jobs?

At the bottom of debate about curricula is a dispute about what’s worth knowing. One side of the argument maintains that a well-educated person needs an acquaintance with the liberal arts, while the other side argues that’s outdated malarkey.

Contemporary students seem to be voting with their majors. The percentage of young people focusing on the humanities declined in recent years, whereas the number of majors in the natural science and health-related fields increased. Business majors remain the most popular course of study.

Partially, the argument is about education vs. training. Education does not necessarily prepare someone for a job; it’s designed to prepare one for life and for life-long learning. It should provide a broad-based context in the social sciences, the natural sciences and the humanities. It should foster curiosity, the ability to reflect, a basis and sound methods for reaching conclusions, an ability to evaluate and weigh arguments, and an appreciation of diversity. It’s not in the job business, although I would argue that many of the qualities it nurtures help one in the world of work. Training is job-specific. It is the concrete to education’s abstractness. Training makes no promises about broader contexts or future applications; it eschews such goals as empathy.

Increasingly, we are becoming a job training society. I don’t think that’s a great recipe for future success, nor, apparently, do some of our nation’s best private schools. Even our military academies have a robust commitment to the liberal arts. But the workplace STEM advocates are definitely winning the debate in public institutions.

I have lots of objections to what we teach in our schools, reaching down into the lower grades and going through graduate schools. Our tendency to segregate subjects, our resistance to seeing and reinforcing knowledge connections seems simply stupid. Why the literature sequence or the math sequence in our high schools remains the same as it did during the era of my mother makes no sense to me, particularly when, for example, a working knowledge of statistics is crucial to understanding the way the world works, whereas a working knowledge of geometry might not be as crucial.

When I taught in high school, there were a number of things I did in the first week to encourage students to question me and to question the value of what they were asked to learn. One of the things I proposed was what I called the Smith Taxonomy of Historical Questions. Level One questions included the obvious ones: What happened? When did it occur? Where did it take place? Who was involved? Level Two Questions were slightly more complex: What caused it to happen? And How do you know that? Level Three was more abstract: So what? What happened as a consequence of that event? What should we take away from that experience?

A training society focuses only on Level One questions, on questions that are easy to bubble on a multiple-choice test. If the multiple-choice test is good, you might begin to engage in some Level Two considerations. However, you need a dialogue, a debate, at least a serious discussion when you begin to consider Level Three queries. And we advance in our understanding only when we get to that level. Training is about skill acquisition; education is about wisdom.

A compliant society wants everything at Level One, with an occasional foray to Level Two. It’s far easier to control what people think, if their thinking is immediate and never conjectural. It’s far easier to manipulate a society through propaganda and fear, if society’s collective memory is without context and its citizens aren’t prone to questioning.

Now I know I’m biased here. I have an undergraduate degree in English and a doctorate in history. But I do worry when we begin to have a two-tiered college system, one focused on specific job skills and one focused on education. Guess which one will produce our leaders? And which one will produce our compliant Do-Bees?