How to Advocate for the Liberal Arts: the State-University Edition

Seven ways to change how the public sees the humanities

Wally Gobetz / Creative Commons

June 08, 2015

As grantsmanship is to STEM fields, advocacy must become for the liberal arts, if a broad-based humanistic education is to remain part of the public university. Those of us in the liberal arts are generally spared the relentless grind of grant applications that keep the lights on and the doors open in the sciences — but we also get less practice in explaining what we do and why it ought to be funded. That needs to change.

It’s not enough for us as faculty members to continue to work as usual and hope that the decline in support for the liberal arts will reverse itself. No matter how excellently those of us in the liberal arts do our research, teaching, and service, the value of our work is being edged out of public higher education.

Many of us wring our hands at that reality and say, "I can’t do anything about declining state funding and rising tuition, and I already have too much to do." Maybe so. But some academics want to know what can be done, so here are some ideas. Some of them may not apply to small colleges, private universities, or two-year institutions, but we can start here.

Make connections with the administrators in admissions and outreach. When your institution reaches out to high schools, whether to recruit students or simply stimulate interest in its programs, how does it present the liberal arts? Are pre-college students made aware that intellectually rich programs covering the breadth of human experience are part of the course offerings, or are they being encouraged to view their educational choices in narrowly career-centric terms?

Admissions staff are justifiably concerned with the challenge of bringing in qualified applicants, and are aware that students and their families want college to offer a clear path to a job. The difficulty of slotting the liberal arts into that narrative ought not to prevent institutions from owning the liberal arts as one of their strengths. It’s up to those of us who know the merits of the liberal arts to help admissions and outreach staff demonstrate our worth to high-school and local audiences.

Investigate the tools that students use to select a major. How is the choice framed? And who does the framing? Examine the resources that your institution offers to help students make that decision. Frameworks that invite students to consider a career first, and a relevant major second, serve to nudge students away from liberal-arts programs.

Students in liberal-arts majors end up in fulfilling occupations where the difference between having majored in history, political science, or German literature may be vanishingly small. However, the experience of having grappled with challenging questions in a field that interests them can make them better at working with, and communicating about, complex realities in any realm. Not only will they learn transferable skills in a liberal-arts major, but they will also learn more about how to make a difference in the world.

So in helping students choose a major, don’t ask them which job description best matches their interests. That prematurely narrows their options and limits their intellectual growth. Instead, ask them: "What kinds of problems do you want to solve and how?" The people at your campus who choose the tools that students use to pick a major may not recognize the value of framing the choice in this way — but you can tell them.

Make connections with the administrators in corporate relations. As state funding for higher education dwindles, state universities are increasingly seeking out public-private partnerships. Find out who is doing that work on your campus and inquire about the kinds of advocacy that liberal-arts programs get in those negotiations.

If we believe what we say about the value of a liberal-arts major’s transferable skills, we should be able to give those administrators the evidence they need to make our departments as visible and relevant to that outreach as the low-hanging fruit of preprofessional and STEM programs.

Reach out to liberal-arts alumni. They are an untapped source of forceful and evidence-based advocacy for the liberal arts. Alumni grow weary of fund-raising appeals but are eager to help out in other ways, and they know firsthand why and how their liberal-arts experience made a difference in their lives.

Let them know that their alma mater remains invested in their progress regardless of how much money they can afford to contribute, and encourage them to speak up about their undergraduate education in whatever public forums are available to them. Find opportunities and develop programs for these alumni to expose new students to the range of paths that begin with a liberal-arts degree.

Teach your majors about career services, and vice versa. The belief that the liberal arts leave students unprepared for jobs after graduation is so widespread that liberal-arts students have little confidence that career-services offices can do anything for them. As a result, staff members in career services often get little experience counseling liberal-arts majors and may feel little pressure to develop resources and knowledge that can help those students — as the few liberal-arts majors who venture into career services quickly discover.

Encourage your students to start exploring careers sooner rather than later, and keep the career-services office informed about the kinds of jobs your recent alumni have found. Students don’t always recognize potential professional experience when they’re getting it, so validate the learning they’re acquiring in those terms. Their leadership of a successful group project, the strong corrective role they played in a class discussion, the paper that effectively challenged received wisdom — all of those things are transferable skills.

Liberal-arts majors often shy away from career services, too, because they equate terms like "career" and "professional" with soul-destroying cubicle jobs. Help students see that "career" means a lot of things and that "professional development" can include learning to galvanize student support for institutional divestment from coal, starting an online magazine, or managing the social-media accounts for a student organization.

Practice your pitch. Many academics resist the notion that they have (or should have) an "elevator pitch" — a 30-second advertisement for their research. They do, however, have to answer the question "What do you do?" in a variety of contexts. Set aside your disciplinary frameworks and ranks, and imagine instead that you’re being asked, "What do you do that the public ought to fund?"

That question suggests a different set of answers, and perhaps the beginning of a meaningful conversation:

  • "I teach students to reason their way through situations where they have incomplete data and contradictory guidelines about what the outcome should look like."
  • "I get students to explore ideology and ethnic identity as causes of war."
  • "I expose students to the sources of their assumptions about gender identity."

Creative and substantial responses that we can stand firmly behind will convey a sense of purpose that often gets obscured by our reluctance to engage with interlocutors whom we fear will find our work silly. Call it the "standing-in-line-at-the-potluck pitch."

Talk to each other about advocacy. Find contexts for talking to colleagues about what works and what doesn’t in advocating for the liberal arts. Many of us are well versed in the conventions of explaining ourselves to administrators who dispense leave time, grant money, and course assignments. We also know how to bring the captive audiences in our classrooms on board with our subject matter.

We are less adroit at making the case for our disciplines or for the common goals of the liberal arts. We see those cases being made on a national stage, at a remove from the institutional shibboleths and history that can make our departmental goals more intelligible within our particular universities. We need to give ourselves every opportunity to learn from what is inevitably a process of trial and error.

As academic freedom dies at the University of Illinois tenure burns at the University of Wisconsin, and whole departments drown at the University of North Carolina, the challenges facing the liberal arts seem to be subsumed within the broader crisis confronting higher education. Yet higher education in some form or other will live on; students will have general-education requirements to complete; people will go on expecting college graduates to communicate effectively about complex and open-ended problems. The more effectively we can advocate now for the enduring importance of what we do, the more likely it is that these important bodies of knowledge and inquiry will survive.

Kirstin R. Wilcox is a lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.