David Berliner is one of the nation’s most eminent researchers of education. I am delighted that he sends original posts to me. I have informed him that “mi casa es su casa,” and he is always welcome here.

Why Universities Need Support, Need to Stay Open, and
Need to Have Their Students on Campus

David C. Berliner
Regents Professor Emeritus, Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ

Over the last few years higher education enrollment in the USA has declined. The cost of colleges and universities has certainly been one factor in that small but steady drop in enrollment, particularly when return on investment is added to concerns about costs. The steep rise in tuition in recent years has an explanation: It is largely due to states’ disinvestment in their universities and colleges. From 2008, before the start of our last recession, to 2019, before the pandemic, my state of Arizona cut its contributions to higher education 54.9% (Mitchell, Leachman, & Saenz, 2019). When I first came to my wonderful university, I was impressed that tuition was relatively low, and it still is, but it is also 92.4% higher than it was in 2008! (Mitchell, Leachman, & Saenz, 2019)

So, for many, in the midst of this pandemic, the sacrifices that students and their families once made to obtain college degrees now appear to be less reasonable, perhaps even less possible. And families rightly worry that the rewards of a university degree are less tangible, compared to what they were in my generation. Incurring a large debt for attending college, particularly for those who may choose to be teachers, social workers, librarians, historians, or for those who major in literature, seems to many folks not to be worth it. A simple cost-benefit analysis will support that argument.

The current pandemic has produced a shock to our systems of higher education: most families, most institutions of higher education, and all of our American states, are now strapped for funds. Under conditions such as these, enrollments are likely to fall even faster and further than they have in recent years. This, of course, brings in less revenue for our colleges and universities. And that requires universities to employ fewer faculty, thus providing fewer majors and courses, making them seem less valuable than they were. Frank Bruni, in the New York Times, recently noted, “our devastated economy leaves [university] missions and identities in limbo, all but guaranteeing that more students will approach higher education in a brutally practical fashion, as an on-ramp to employment and nothing more.”
Would that matter much? If scenario’s like these are likely, what would be lost? Really, what in the world does a university prepare one for? What is it that a university makes?

When I was younger and part of the administrative team at Arizona State University, we were forced to address these questions. We had to compare ourselves to, and try to determine our competitive advantage over, the still young but rapidly growing University of Phoenix– and its many imitators around the country. We busied ourselves by greatly expanding our offerings and enrollments, and becoming one of the largest and best universities in the world. But the private, for profit, online, diploma granting institutions which were without the expense of the bricks and mortar that make for an authentic campus were growing just as fast as we were. To deal with that, I sometimes had to speak to parents and community members about what we did at our university that was different and of value. What I said then seems as relevant today as it was when we felt threatened by institutions that were cheaper, and where students could complete coursework in much less time. I said that “At our university we make humanity.”

Our public K-12 school system was, at least for the better part of the 20th century, designed for employability. But in the latter part of the 20th century that system was transformed and emphasized preparation for college.

Colleges and universities had then taken on the role of preparation for employability, albeit in the better paying and more prestigious fields such as medicine, law, business, engineering, and the like. Enrollments grew.
But the universities that welcomed massive increases in enrollment had some centuries-old, fuddy-duddy traditions that were not often integral to our K-12 systems. (I use the term fuddy-duddy deliberately. It is a term for a person or institution that is likely to be old-fashioned, traditionalist, perhaps conservative, sometimes almost to the point of eccentricity.)

Engineering, business, computer science, nursing and almost anything else that was practical and being taught at modern universities became, over time, quite acceptable majors. But universities also wanted all of its graduates to have knowledge of the humanities—history, philosophy, literature, art, music–and to learn, as well, something from the more contemporary relatives of the humanities, the social sciences…the human sciences!

Quoting Berry (2009) I told interested community members and parents of those who might enter our university that “Underlying the idea of a university — the bringing together, the combining into one, of all the disciplines — is the idea that good work and good citizenship are the inevitable by-products of the making of a good — that is, a fully developed — human being.”

Further, again quoting Berry (2009), I told them that in particular, what residential colleges and universities are “mandated to make…are human beings in the fullest sense of those words — not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture. If the proper work of our public schools and universities is only to equip people to fulfill private ambitions, then how do we justify public support? If it is only to prepare citizens to fulfill public responsibilities, then how do we justify the teaching of arts or sciences? The common denominator has to be larger than either career preparation or preparation for citizenship. Underlying the idea of a university [is the idea of making] a good — that is, a fully developed — human being.”
Some of our teacher education students, or their parents, wanted our college to be more like a trade school, emphasizing the teaching of this or that subject and how to do “discipline.” They all knew of schools that granted degrees in less than four years, where students studied only the minimum needed for employment as a teacher. But I always said to them that any other goal for a university than the full development of a human being, especially for America’s teachers, was unlovely!

So, I defend the humanities and social sciences for all students, asking that they learn more than just the skills needed to code, build bridges, run an industry, or teach! And I argue that the contemporary danger of too many fast-track teacher preparation programs is that the educators they produce may not be the fully developed human beings we want our children entrusted to.

​“So what’s a humanities?” Sam Smith (1979) asked decades ago. He answered his own question this way: “I can’t really give you one answer. But I can give you several. It’s asking why before we say yes. It’s remembering something someone wrote two centuries ago when we can’t remember what we wrote yesterday. It’s mistakes we don’t have to make because they’ve already been made and solutions we don’t have to dream up because someone has already thought of them. It’s how we got where we are and where we might go from here. It’s things we can’t measure yet know have depth and breadth. It’s parts of our culture we might lose like the Indian tribe writing its language down and putting it in a book. It’s parts of our culture that we’re often slow to recognize as such, like the legislature in Georgia finally making “Georgia on My Mind” the state song and inviting Ray Charles to come down and sing it. It’s the moral, philosophical, and historical issues hidden behind the political babble. It’s rights and beliefs and their protection. It’s preserving the past and the future and not just exploiting today. It’s thinking as well as talking, questioning as well as answering. And it’s placing human values and culture at the center of our world and making machines and technology and [some TV channels] serve us rather than the other way around.”

​The fuddy-duddy universities, with their roots in the middle ages, now must address modernity, employability, fiscal exigencies, and the like, but as they do so I hope that they continue to insist that the heart of a university—whatever other activities in which they engage—are the humanities and the social sciences. It is from the university’s offerings in these areas that we form fully developed human beings. And it is why we need students on campus. It is highly desirable to have our youth enmeshed in a culture where the subject matters dealt with in humanities and social science courses are discussed. At least for a few years, before our university students enter the world of work and full adulthood, they should live in an environment that values what is taught and discussed in the humanities and social sciences. That is why our colleges and universities need to stay open and find ways to keep students on campus.

As an example of the possible effects of the humanities and the social sciences, I point to the current protests demanding societal change following the death of George Floyd (and hundreds of other Black Americans). A look at the protesters shows that they are certainly not all Black, and sometimes not even majority Black. African-American protesters have been joined by large numbers of white, college educated citizens, in larger numbers than might have been predicted. The New York Times (Harmon & Tavernice, June 17, 2020) reports that in surveys of recent protests in three cities, 82 percent of white protesters had a college degree! These are white citizens who are more likely to have been exposed to the humanities and social sciences than previous generations, and they learned in those courses what an imperfect nation we have, starting right from its hallowed beginnings.

These better educated, young, patriotic citizens are compelled to stand with their Black sisters and brothers in desiring a more perfect nation. Their experiences in the humanities and social sciences may well be what leads college-educated students of all races to hold more liberal or progressive views, views that are more sympathetic to our nations’ most recent outrages and the protests they inspire.
In fact, among people who identify as progressives, 67% thought that colleges and universities had a positive effect on our country. I think so too. But among those identifying with the more conservative side of our democracy, those who lean Republican in their voting, 59% said that college attendance was having a negative effect on America (Fingerhut, 2017)! This is consistent with the views of one of conservative America’s, heroes, Ronald Reagan. At a press conference in Sacramento on Feb. 28, 1967 Reagan said that taxpayers should not be subsidizing “intellectual curiosity”! Wold renown universities such as the UC Berkeley and UCLA, he said, should shift their focus to teaching workforce entry skills!

The effects of the liberal arts, the humanities, and the social sciences, accompanied by myriad discussions, disagreements, and heated arguments of the issues raised in such courses, at a genuine university do change who we are and what we think of our democracy. Conservatives are right to be wary of fuddy-duddy universities. Hundreds of those institutions may actually have educated our youth in exactly the ways they intended!

But now, a crisis is faced by so many of the institutions that actually did a pretty good job of educating America’s young adults to be thoughtful citizens. The pandemic we are experiencing, Rosenberg (2020) argues, is “uniquely and diabolically designed to undermine the foundations of traditional colleges and universities, [It does so because] we have pathologized closeness. Working side by side with a professor in a laboratory? Forbidden. Meeting with an adviser in an office to discuss one’s academic future? Impossible. Living together, dining together, studying together, [arguing together]? Banned by medical advice and often by governmental edict.” If students’ personal interactions with others on a campus are overly restricted, the changes frequently brought about by the humanities and social sciences are less likely to occur.
It seems that the combination of taking courses in the humanities and social sciences, as well as living in a college community, produce graduates who are better informed citizens: citizens who want to see our country move closer to its ideals; citizens who are more willing to protest injustice. And thus, our universities are graduating citizens more likely to bring about change. Are these improper aspirations for the college experience? And of all the college majors that exist, shouldn’t America’s teacher education programs be the most assiduous in wanting the humanities and social sciences to be a part of every teachers’ university experience? Making humanity is what good universities do and it is really a far more important goal for a university in a democracy than providing the specific course work that develop our nations’ computer programmers, business majors, architects, or teachers.

As Bruni (2020) notes, “A vaccine for the coronavirus won’t inoculate anyone against the ideological arrogance, conspiracy theories and other internet-abetted passions and prejudices that drive Americans apart. But the perspective, discernment and skepticism that a liberal arts education can nurture just might.”
These are difficult times. But if we don’t require a healthy dose of coursework in the humanities and social sciences, paired with a community of learners who discuss the issues raised in those courses, our universities are much less likely to “make humanity.” This may well mean reduced thoughtfulness and caring in our society. It may mean fewer people to stand with those that protest injustice in hopes of making us a better nation. And that, I think, would be a shame.

Berry, W. (2009). Home Economics: Fourteen Essays. Berkeley Ca: Counterpoint Press
Bruni, F. (2020, June 4). The End of College as We Knew It? Sunday Review, New York: New York Times. Retrieved June 16, 2020 from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/04/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-college-humanities.html

Fingerhut, H. (July 20, 2017). Republicans skeptical of colleges’ impact on U.S., but most see benefits for workforce preparation. Washington DC: Pew Research Center. Retrieved June 16 from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/07/20/republicans-skeptical-of-colleges-impact-on-u-s-but-most-see-benefits-for-workforce-preparation/

Harmon, A & Tavernice, S. (2020, June 17). One Big Difference About George Floyd Protests: Many White Faces. New York Times. Retrieved June 18 from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/us/george-floyd-white-protesters.html?searchResultPosition=1

Mitchell, M., Leachman, M., & Saenz, M. (2019, October 24). State Higher
Education Funding Cuts Have Pushed Costs to Students, Worsened Inequality. Washington, DC: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Rosenberg, B. (2020, April 13). How Should Colleges Prepare for a Post-Pandemic World? The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved June 16, 2020 from https://www.chronicle.com/article/How-Should-Colleges-Prepare/248507

Smith, S. (1979, September 17). What’s a humanities? Sam Smith’s Essays. Retrieved June 14 from https://samsmitharchives.wordpress.com/1979/09/17/from-our-overstocked-archives-whats-a-humanities/