When You Take Your Humanities-Oriented Kid on a College Tour…


Recently a few readers and others have mentioned this piece, so I thought I would re-post it.  I wrote the piece a couple of years ago when I was taking my oldest daughter on college visits.  Inside Higher Ed published it in May 2016.   I think it still holds up.

Here is a taste:

I have spent a lot of time in the past year visiting college campuses with my daughter. She is a senior in high school and has recently made her college choice. We visited all kinds of institutions: elite private schools, liberal arts colleges, Christian colleges and public universities. My daughter is a humanities person. She will most likely major in something like English or history. If she dabbles in the social sciences, she will probably pursue anthropology or sociology.

She was also very perceptive about the vibe that she got from the colleges that she visited. She did not merely want an institution with strong humanities programs. She wanted one with a humanities ethos that pervades the campus.

A few months ago, on back to back days, we visited two very prestigious private universities. The first institution, despite its reputation as a world-class research university, presented itself, first and foremost, as an undergraduate liberal arts college. The admissions office and tour guides noted that many of the professional schools, including the graduate school, were located in remote parts of the campus. The layout of this campus exuded a sense of community rooted in ideas and questions about what it means to be human.The departments of History, English and African-American Studies were all located at the center of campus. When my daughter told some of the current students that she was thinking about majoring in English or history she was greeted with enthusiasm.

The second institution — another world class research university — offered a very different feel. Little was said about the humanities and liberal arts. Our tour did not even venture to the location on campus where these departments were housed. Instead the presentations stressed professional programs: business and engineering.  When we talked to some students at an off-campus residential community, we learned that none of them were majoring in humanities-related fields. I think my daughter was embarrassed to tell people on the campus that she was interested in the humanities.

Last fall, we also attended a few Christian colleges. One of these colleges had a strong tradition of liberal arts and humanities education. During her evening in the dorms, my daughter met several humanities majors. The next day, during presentations, tours, and classes, she was deeply impressed by the way the questions raised by the humanities-oriented disciplines animated everything that happened in the curriculum of this institution. (This college is not defined as a “liberal arts college” by the Carnegie rankings.)  

My daughter was not sure if she wanted to attend a Christian college, but if she decided to do so, she wanted an institution with a strong commitment to the integration of faith and learning. She was aware that such integration is difficult, if not impossible, without robust support for the humanities — history, English, theology, philosophy, languages and the like. Those disciplines raise the “big questions” about what it means to be a human being in the world — the kinds of questions more compatible with religious faith. She felt at home in this place.

The other Christian college that she visited attracts more students interested in professional majors. The humanities programs are solid, but the faculty spends a lot of its time fighting for the importance of the liberal arts. During the course of the visit, a few students asked my daughter about her intended major. In every case, when my daughter said she was interested in history or English, her new acquaintances asked her if she wanted to teach. When my daughter said she was not interested in teaching, her hosts responded: “Then what are you going to do with that [degree]?” She also sensed that the admissions staff did not know how to talk about the humanities.

My daughter came home from the visit wondering if she could find any conversation partners or friends with the same interests. Everyone she met, it seemed, was majoring in athletic training, nursing or business. I told her that she certainly would meet people at this institution who had the same passions and interests as she did, but, in the end, what my daughter sensed was correct: this college did not have a humanities or liberal arts ethos.  She felt it.

I have enjoyed seeing these various colleges and universities through my daughter’s eyes. I have concluded that the liberal arts and humanities are still strong at the small institutions of higher learning that continue to define themselves as “liberal arts colleges” and are categorized as such. But beyond those elite colleges, the chances of finding an institution in which the humanities define the academic culture are slim at best.

In my experience, students are still interested in subjects like history and English, but they see these more as a “hobby” than a legitimate focus of undergraduate study. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a talented undergraduate tell me something like this: “I love history, and I would love to study it, but I am not sure what I can do with it, and neither are my parents.” 

Read the entire piece here.