From inside the information vacuum at the University of Vermont, I was eager to read Shap Smith’s Dec. 17 commentary (“Thoughts about the recent Arts and Sciences proposal at UVM”). Not only a member of the Board of Trustees and UVM alumnus (Political Science and Government, English, Class of 1987) but also a former legislator and respected Speaker of the House, Mr. Smith has greatly contributed to our state and its flagship university. When my elder son came home in summer 2016 from Boys State, which teaches young Vermonters the workings of state government through a mock legislative session, he specifically mentioned his encounter with Speaker Smith and his admiration for him.
I write this, therefore, with respect for a man who takes his leadership responsibilities seriously and who wrote to the public taking the university’s best interests to heart.
Mr. Smith writes of low enrollments in the majors and minors being proposed for termination: fewer than five in some cases, he specifies. However, the number of students enrolled in majors and minors is not the same as the number of students enrolled in these courses. Course enrollments in these programs go into the hundreds, and, therefore, the number of students majoring or minoring in these disciplines cannot possibly measure both their academic and their financial impact. The hundreds of people who have written to the Board testify to the fact that these “small” programs have contributed profoundly to graduates’ personal and professional lives, and that doing away with major-level courses would deprive future students of deep learning, no matter their major or minor — which is, in fact, a mere data point.
Those who have chosen to major in these fields have gone on to make a real difference in our country and world. Take Classics, which Emerson Lynn chose to mock in his Saint Albans Messenger editorial in response to these announced cuts. Dr. Anthony Fauci was a Classics major, as were Jerry Brown (Calif. governor), James Baker (former U.S. Secretary of State), Toni Morrison (Nobel Prize in literature), and Sarah Price (community manager for Gmail). Regardless of the number of majors or minors, this is a mighty group of changemakers, deeply rooted in classical thought.
So what students gain in these fields of learning opens them to the modern world in all its human, natural, and technological complexity and trains their minds with the rigors of a discipline. The learning provided through one or two classes in a subject is shallow compared to three or four. For reference, six are required for most minors in the humanities, and ten for the major, and forty overall are required for graduation. Our majors in the liberal arts should not be placed in competition; these disciplines complement one another, which is why it is not unheard of for students to have two majors and a minor, or even two majors and two minors, but more often a major and a minor with concentrations in other disciplines. Hence the value of multidisciplinary study.
In his reflection, Mr. Smith does not weigh the negative impacts of the cuts as opposed to the benefits of investment. With a $21.4 million structural deficit, “UVM’s fiscal course is,” as he writes, “unsustainable.” However, if cash reserves are being used to fill the gap, I question why these reserves are not being used to bring new talent to our university. A shrinking faculty due to attrition and austerity cuts will not attract eager and curious minds and tuition dollars. However, a vibrant cadre of scholars and writers who share their intellect and their time with young scholars will. Crises provide the opportunity for investment — that is, if the Board and our president consider the humanities worthy of strategic investment.
Look at the list of changemakers above. They are living testaments to the value of the humanities to our society.
The basis for American civilization grew out of Classical arts and philosophy. Democracy and respect for the rule of law derive from Ancient Greece and Rome, as did our conceptual understanding of the relationship between truth and power. A superficial understanding of these ideals, values, and cultural concepts is easily displaced by our animal impulses (hence Greek tragedy, and the current state of our country’s politics) which is why a liberal arts education serves to deeply root these ideals, values, and concepts in our reasoning and perceptual faculties and furthermore develop our ethical capacity, cross-cultural understanding, and a deeper comprehension of ourselves.
The true loss that these cuts represent cannot be quantified. We can speak of 12 majors, 11 minors, and 4 master’s programs, but it is the quality of the education we provide as a university that is ultimately at stake, and the quality of our graduates that will determine our legacy as an institution of higher learning and our country’s future.