Venkata: What we lose when we lose the humanities

It’s more than just a campus issue.

Uma Venkata

University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point is likely eliminating 13 humanities majors in order to expand 16 ‘more-marketable’ programs. The endangered majors include English, history, philosophy and political science. The reason is fiscal. UW schools are cash-pressed; in 2015, Gov. Scott Walker cut them by 11 percent ($250 million) in state subsidy, after already having slashed hundreds of thousands of dollars the previous ten years. UWSP itself is staring down a $4.5 million structural deficit in the next two years, due to declining enrollment. Something’s got to give.

UW’s mission, the Wisconsin Idea, is its sacred text. I truly laughed out loud at the Washington Post’s report that “Walker tried — unsuccessfully — to change the wording … in 2015, dropping ‘search for truth’ and ‘improve the human condition’ and replacing them with ‘meet the state’s workforce needs.’” Where are we, Brave New World? Harry Potter, where Voldemort’s cronies take over Hogwarts? When we divest from the study — nay, the luxury — of human introspection, in favor of cultivating machines primarily of efficiency, the ending’s already given way.

UWSP is a central Wisconsin stronghold. Its cuts would bear pronounced local effects. Eliminating humanities programs restricts freshmen. UWSP’s humanities cut increases investment in more-practical majors — to attract more freshmen a la Walker Amendment. This may backfire because the target demographic could just go to technical, vocational or trade schools. They may get the same or better exposure and apprenticeships, and spend much less money while they’re at it. It’s even easier to make that decision without UWSP’s heavily endangered academic array.

But UWSP certainly isn’t alone. Everyone’s unsure of their humanities, even wealthy Ivies. There’s reason to worry about enrollment numbers, a very pronounced reality everywhere, but the problem’s crux lies off campus.

We need humanities majors. Last week, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany released a survey reporting sickening statistics. In a follow up on the survey by The New York Times, the article said, “Thirty-one percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; the actual number is around six million. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. And 52 percent of Americans wrongly think Hitler came to power through force.”

This shortcoming is inexcusable — and it’s here because of the gaping difference between where humanities education is and where it should be. It’s a very real consequence. As philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We can never forget.

UWSP’s humanities students remain vocal, resilient and generally valiant despite impending program cuts. Olivia De Valk, an Appleton native and UWSP senior in English, deeply advocates for the humanities. “It’s really important for universities to champion their humanities and their liberal arts educations, because no one outside of the university is really going to do that.”

My challenge to you is to do it. I believe in humanity — and in our humanities. I want to live in a village that takes all kinds.