The Slow Death of the Humanities: The Resilience of Butler’s History Program

photo courtesy of Boston University

MADELEINE LUCCHETTI | OPINION EDITOR | mlucchet@butler.edu

The Slow Death of the Humanities: The Resilience of Butler’s History Program” is the second column of a Collegian series discussing the fight to keep humanities and liberal arts programs as integral offerings on Butler’s academic menu. The gradual removal of such degree plans is a national issue. As more and more universities expand STEM and business programs, higher education is often given a singular, depressing goal: to groom a future workforce.

Maybe you’re determined to chug through college using a formula of credits that will guarantee a fat paycheck immediately following graduation.

Maybe you’re “woke” on Instagram, or habitually shut down your classmates’ opposing views in a singular, huffy breath.

Maybe you’ve always dreamed of being a liberal arts major, but years of parental expectations that you go STEM dissuaded you of that passion.

In any of these seemingly unrelated circumstances, enroll in a history class.

Why?

If you’d like to enrich your undergraduate career, or transform your infantile outbursts into productive dialogue, consider taking advantage of history and anthropology classes.

Refreshingly, it seems that a chunky demographic of our Butler peers are readily enrolling in these classes, which color a liberal arts education.

Perhaps that lecture on East Asian interactions or a seminar on West African cultural studies seems an irrelevant waste of time. But chat with any of our history and anthropology faculty members, and you’ll understand why these departments have cemented themselves as integral parts of Butler’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Inherently, these disciplines teach global understanding and a multitude of worldly perspectives. When the hip discourse of the day is polarizing and misinformed, such background knowledge is all the more valuable. A well-informed student, studying what they love, is bound to dually enrich campus and follow a successful trajectory post-college.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” says the skeptical first-year student. “But Butler’s expensive, and I need to be guaranteed a job that’s dependable. Plus, I already know everything, and don’t need to be schooled in social awareness.”

Dr. Elise Edwards, who teaches a variety of courses in the jointly-related history and anthropology departments, often finds herself reminding students that one’s undergraduate degree rarely correlates to their long-term career.

“An undergraduate degree is purely a stepping stone, so you should do exactly what you’re passionate about in college,” Edwards said. “The best thing you can do is to get great grades, to do well at what you enjoy — to not flail through college, or be unhappy.”

She noted that Butler history majors have gone onto to get MBAs, work in law firms and even sports agencies.

“There’s data to support this, but most CEOs and HR heads of large companies will say they’re looking for are a variety of soft skills,” Edwards said. “They also all say, more than content knowledge, we want you to know how to approach a problem rationally and logically.”

So the history and anthropology departments carry a multifaceted practicality. Besides, if you’re entertaining the idea of majoring in history, anthropology, or an amalgamation of the two, Butler is the place to be.

Professor Paul Hanson, who teaches in the history and anthropology departments, said he is confident the program has made its usefulness evident in its essence, by intertwining two fields of study to produce varied, engaging coursework.  

Both Edwards and Hanson note that the consistency of interest is vested in the uniqueness of the program, which the department’s web page describes as “the only undergraduate department in the United States that integrates cultural anthropology and history in its curricula.”

Hanson noted that Butler enrollment numbers have remained steady, though fluctuation is normal and expected with the expansion of other colleges — cough, cough, LSB.

“These things go in cycles,” Hanson said. “Right now we’re seeing an increase in the numbers of majors coming into the college of business — and part of that has to do with a flashy new building. Part of it has to do with a national climate that emphasizes going to college to find your career, and to come out the other end with a job.”

Not only are the history and anthropology programs thriving in the 2018-19 school year, but they’re set up for success down the road. Currently, the combined majors come to a healthy sum of about 80. In light of national trends, this is an anomaly.

A study published in December 2018 by the American Historical Association, quoted in February of this year by The New Yorker, revealed that the national number of history majors shrank more quickly in the last ten years than did any other major.

But simultaneously, more and more students began attending college. Naturally, this leads to a reallocation of funds toward the programs in vogue. Our Midwestern neighbor, University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, considered eliminating its history program altogether.

The only exceptions to this trend? The Ivys: Brown, Columbia, Princeton, and Yale, whose history programs have seen a steady uptick in student enrollment.

Let’s be real: Butler clings to any distant tie to prestige. How many times have we been reminded of our spotlight on Blah Blah National Ranking or That Obscure College List?

Let the success of the history and anthropology programs be a testament to their value, regardless of whatever “2020”, “2030”, “2040” marketing plans might dictate. If Butler can weather this national drought, it speaks to the value of our specific curricula, and should be evidence enough to fund and prioritize the programs for years to come.

“I think history, anthropology, sociology, political science — all these teach you how to think critically, how to look for answers,” Hanson said. “It’s also the case that its becoming increasingly true that a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough, so why not get as broad an education as you can as an undergraduate?

It’s likely that in reaching that high-salaried position, you’ll be paying for a lot more than Butler. So you may as well enjoy each class in its own right, and use the knowledge gained to guide your day-to-day interactions.

History classes might help you make sense of the current sociopolitical climate. At the very least, Edwards said, history helps us be “good citizens, responsible civically,” especially when people are “peddling in bad history all over the internet.”

These curricula have power beyond the four-year immersion, and can arm you with the rhetoric and background knowledge to engage in meaningful conversation — something more intelligent beyond your spluttering on Twitter when coming across a stranger’s alternative opinion.

 

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