I am a professor of political science at DePaul University, specializing in the history of political thought. This job entails many responsibilities and duties. These include: reading beloved but challenging books and then sharing them with smart and engaged young adults; writing essays and books about all-consuming ideas; writing short essays for popular audiences; delivering lectures at universities around the country; talking with colleagues about their research interests and concerns; traveling overseas to comb through archives, present research and teach students; pushing students improve their ability to read, write, and think clearly; helping students achieve their greatest ambitions; urging students to make sense of themselves and the world they occupy; and regularly engaging some of the smartest people one might encounter in any line of work.
To be sure, the job also requires grading papers, attending interminable meetings, and writing committee reports of dubious significance. Yet it is easy enough to tolerate these mild inconveniences for all the remarkable benefits of my chosen career. I am, as they say, living the dream.
Yet when I first enrolled in college, I did not know I wanted any of these things. I had no dream. Like many students, I entered higher education with a vague sense that this was necessary to achieve some threshold level of material comfort.
What was it, then, that changed — how did I go from desiring mere physical comfort to the joyful life I now live? It was my encounter with philosophy and political theory as a college student. I initially took these classes for the simple reason that they satisfied degree requirements. But I quickly realized that this way of thinking — indulging in abstraction to process my own experiences and the communities I inhabited by carefully studying “the great books” — created an excitement not only about learning, but also about getting on with the business of a life dedicated to more of the same.
It was this encounter with the liberal arts that gave me a purpose. And once armed with a purpose, everything else fell into place. I went from aimless to purposeful; from socially awkward to finding a community of like-minded friends; from wasting countless hours on pointless pursuits to reading rich books, enjoying long conversations with friends, and proceeding with the mission of what Socrates would call “the examined life.”
It is in this context that I am processing the news that the institution where I spent the first 11 years of my professional career, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, has not only proposed eliminating majors in philosophy and political science, but also in nearly all of the traditional liberal arts and humanities — including history, English, German, French, Spanish, and sociology, along with art, art history, and music history.
I was surprised by my initial reaction to the announcement. I might have expected to be angry. But my response has been grief.
The question is, “What am I grieving?” To be sure, I grieve for my former colleagues who feel betrayed by the political and administrative forces that conspire to threaten their livelihoods. But my grief is also personal. I grieve over the life I might have had without encountering the liberal arts. While the STEM disciplines have their place in the academy, not all of us are well suited for that path — we lack either the ability or the passion for those pursuits.
In many cases, it takes some time to learn this about ourselves. It is in these moments that students at traditional universities and colleges often find themselves taking their philosophy, history, literature or language classes. And for those with the talent and interest, a new path presents itself — one marked by engagement, purpose and joy. I know this because I have been teaching for two decades. More times than I can count, I have seen this spark ignite previously uninspired students, discovering who they are and how their brains work — sensing for the first time that there is a place in this world for people like them. This is what the liberal arts offer to students everywhere.
Except, now, in Stevens Point. What saddens me for UWSP is the fact that, if the administration’s plan is approved, these paths would be closed (or at least severely limited) to the coming generations of students. What becomes of the student who finds that the offered field of “fire science” is not her thing? What becomes of the student who lacks a passion for marketing fast foods?
In the proud tradition of the liberal arts in American higher education, these students always had the opportunity to find themselves elsewhere. I mourn for these students now because they will have no other place on campus to turn. And where once a meaningful, purposeful life might have bloomed, it would now whither on the vine.
This is the dark new vision implied by UWSP’s “Reimagining of the Curriculum.” According to this “Reimagining,” students like these are unimportant, disposable, or somehow irrelevant to the new mission of this university. And that seems something appropriate about which to grieve.
David Lay Williams is professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago. He was professor of philosophy and political science at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point from 2000-2011 and is the author and editor of several books, including "Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’: An Introduction."
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