Humanities professor fights to save program

Mike Wereschagin

George Kliger has been struggling to keep the humanities alive at the University for almost a year.
One way or the other, that fight could soon be over.
The humanities department was abolished in 1992 and, as a result, Kliger was left as the only full-time humanities professor.
Now, unless University officials decide to reinstate humanities as a full department and hire more faculty members, Kliger will be unable to keep the program available to students as a result of the recent semester conversion.
Two petitions with about 300 signatures have been sent to University administrators and a third is on the way in an effort to convince them of the humanities’ importance.
Efforts like this have been attempted intermittently for nearly 30 years but have achieved marginal success.
In 1972, funding for the University’s Humanities Program was slashed by one-third in an effort to trim the program’s fat.
The Humanities Program studies classical works of Western literature, art and music, ranging from ancient Greece and Rome up to the 20th century.
George Kliger, an assistant humanities professor at the time, expressed his concern to a Minnesota Daily reporter over the decision’s long-term implications.
“I am worried whether next year’s cut will hurt the program so that it cannot flourish in the future,” Kliger said then. “If matters continue the way they are now, I’m not sure enough funds will be available for humanities.”
In 1992, his fears were realized when the University abolished the humanities department, officially citing financial difficulties.
Unofficially, internal rifts caused by differing ideological perspectives split the seven faculty members and contributed to the demise of humanities, Kliger said.
Five of the seven teachers merged with another University program and created the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature.
One of the two professors who wished to keep the humanities alive in its original form retired following the decision, and George Kliger was left as the sole member of the crippled program. During the past eight years, the Humanities Program has survived by the efforts of Kliger and professors from other departments who volunteered their services.
Some of the professors took on double and even triple their courseload — without extra pay — to keep the humanities alive.
“It’s been touch-and-go because of the voluntary nature of the teaching,” Kliger said.
But with the semester conversion, professors have been forced to devote more time to their own classes, leaving little room for teaching extra courses like humanities.
“We’re already short on teachers,” Kliger said. “In a year the whole thing will be gone, depriving the students of a marvelous major.”
The only solution to this problem, he continued, is the reinstatement of humanities as a full department, complete with the opportunity for a major in the subject.
“This program can’t be stabilized any more in its current form,” Kliger said. “The only stable way to keep it around is to offer a major.”
However, some University faculty question the necessity of such a major.
Robin Brown, director of the cultural studies and comparative literature department, said a humanities major would be redundant.
“There is nothing in the program that is not taught somewhere else in the University,” Brown said. “They study wonderful texts and music, but those texts and music are taught all over the place.”
However, James Norwood, associate professor of theater arts and dance, said Brown’s claim is “just not true.”
From 1994 through 1999, Norwood helped keep the Humanities Program alive by volunteering to teach courses. The work often doubled or even tripled his normal workload.
He said the difference between Humanities Program courses and other courses is the way in which they are taught.
Unlike other programs, the program studies the classics in their original form, Norwood said.
“Cultural studies focuses on modern theory and how classic works relate to it,” he said. “The content and methodology of the courses are completely different. It is misleading to suggest humanities material is handled in other courses.”
That difference, Kliger said, is what makes the humanities department so important to the University.
“The humanities give us balance,” he said, adding that many people today get so caught up in a classic writer or composer’s personal life, the brilliance of the work itself is often overlooked.
“Humanities courses look at some of the best material through the ages,” Kliger said. “What goes on in the present is illuminated by them.
“We can’t fully understand today without understanding the past.”

Mike Wereschagin welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3226.