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Humanities must defend themselves to remain relevant

Margaret Lindahl/Manitou Messenger

The recent Strategic Resource Allocation Project (SRAP), which marked the end of the American Studies program in addition to cuts in various humanities departments, sparked discussion regarding the relationship between the humanities and STEM, and the responsibility of St. Olaf to maintain its liberal arts identity. As pointed out in a previous Manitou Messenger article by Jacob Maranda, the cut reflects a general trend in budget decisions by higher education administrations throughout the country in response to a growth of interest in STEM fields.

Critics of these cuts point out the college’s identity, which appears to value a holistic education that challenges students to engage with the world from a variety of disciplines in addition to the fields they wish to specialize in.

The conflict in values arises between those who favor an idealistic approach of preserving the liberal arts, and those who favor a practical approach to budget allocation.

Though studies suggest humanities graduates don’t face significant underemployment rates compared to other disciplines, it is undeniable that due to a large job market and fast post-grad recovery, STEM is a more secure choice for those in search of definite returns on their higher education investments.

Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that merely adjusting a college’s budget to favor STEM over the humanities seems a rather limited approach to adapting students’ training for jobs where employers often look for more than specialized knowledge or technical skills. There are possibly better solutions to attune students’ liberal arts education with employment that don’t come at a cost of weakening the humanities.

It is important to recognize that the administration’s decision was informed by evidence and research, not a malicious and ill-informed attempt to delegitimize the humanities. We should listen to the voices that express legitimate concern about the disciplines.

Criticisms of the humanities undeniably vary – some, see the humanities as ideologically homogeneous and practically impotent. Others, view these disciplines as upholding the values of an oppressive and exclusionary canon of knowledge.

The humanities have yet to defend themselves against these accusations at an effective level, often unable to address the critics’ main concerns.

It is important for the humanities to identify and present themselves as rigorous academic disciplines that accept a variety of ideological positions and are actively critical of attempts to homogenize at the expense of serious scholarship and engagement.


Minh Nguyen ’22 (nguyen35@stolaf.edu) is from Hanoi, Vietnam. He majors in Philosophy.