Don't cut humanities out of the University of Alaska; we'll lose heart and innovation

A bit over 2,400 years ago, Empedocles thought that species came about by the random assemblage of body parts. The infinitesimally few fortunate monsters that worked out-survived the vast majority of hopeless ones. Thus, according to this Greek thinker, species were not intelligently designed.

Even though Empedocles got only the unintelligent design part right (he was wrong about the origin of species), his ideas were quite a feat of anti-intuitive thinking. Everybody knows that putting parts together at random is not a recipe for success. There is no free lunch in this universe; excellent products require excellent materials and careful engineering.

Our state and public university leaders face such a conundrum: They have to design a teaching machine that is capable of generating an army of graduates who are skillful enough to navigate a state that is facing crises from every imaginable angle (finance, climate, energy -- you name it). But unlike Empedocles' imaginary universe, our state has neither an infinite supply of time nor the resources to pull off a fortunate monster research-and-development maneuver.

So I empathize with our leaders. As things stand, they lack the money to maintain the complex teaching machine that is the University of Alaska system. But they have the power to wield sharp knives. Even a cursory knowledge of human history can tell us that the collision between scarcity and sharp objects tends to end poorly. Program cutting is obviously an option. But in the last 40 years or so, administration growth (not faculty growth) has been the trend in our nation. Today the salary of an upper-level administrator can easily be higher than the salaries of three faculty members put together (e.g. a small department in the humanities ). Slicing might be necessary, but only if based on hard evidence and done carefully. Here is what we know will not work:

Cutting academics in a university depresses a region's economic well-being. Less university funding results in the increase of part-time instructors, which in turn results in larger classes, less class prep time and less challenging classes. These in turn result in the perception of lower class quality by the students, which translates into lower graduation rates. It is also well established that college degrees are increasingly becoming prerequisites for good employment. Naturally, the greater the number of graduates in a community, the greater the attraction of stronger employers to it. Better employers provide better salaries. And better-paid employees buy more goods and services in their community. In short, university cuts have the domino effect of depressing an area's economic success.

As the UA system considers its future Strategic Pathways, we must also bear in mind that a great deal of evidence has established the necessary components of an excellent university. The idea of campus specialization has been floated in the Strategic Pathways vision -- where the sciences and the humanities are sent to different sides of the Alaska Range.

The idea that the humanities and the sciences are not mutually supportive is tenacious and factually incorrect. For instance, it has been shown that liberal arts colleges, compared to research institutions, are outstandingly better at producing future science Ph.D.s, and liberal arts undergraduates are at least twice as likely to excel in their scientific disciplines than bachelors in general. Yong Zhao's book "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon" shows that dropping the liberal arts, in order to concentrate more heavily on the technical, resulted in China's present problem: Being very good at copying someone else's ideas and poor at generating new ones.

To understand this subtle dependence, you must first not think that the "liberal" (in "liberal arts") indicates membership to a particular political party. It stands, in fact, for "broad thinking." Next, you should consider the interdependence between a computer operating system (e.g. Windows or Mac) and the different programs that can run on it. The operating system provides the rules and nature of the game. The different programs are sets of good moves that are designed to tackle specific problems in the user's universe. You can be pretty good at working out problems within a word processor, but this does not mean you can re-design the word-processing apps, much less discover and create new ones. The liberal arts provide the broadest possible "programing skills" (e.g. critical thinking, writing, history, philosophy, etc.). The sciences provide specialization on the different fields in the user's universe.

Removing the liberal arts programs to make a science-centered campus will change the kind of graduates we produce. Their liberal arts education will be left to the odd (overworked and underpaid) adjunct still around (if there are any). In the end, we might still produce competent technicians. We might even luck out and produce great followers of whatever trend happens to be the latest hit in their field. But for Alaska, a multicultural region in multilevel crisis, this is not enough. We need to worry about producing new, excellent leaders -- excellent within their own disciplines, but also excellent at broad, out-of-the-box thinking. We could leave this Empedoclean monster to chance, or go for intelligent design. I vote for the second.

Eduardo Wilner is chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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Eduardo Wilner

Eduardo Wilner is chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.