Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Dropping Majors

This comment on Tim Burke's blog led me to this article which I thought contained a disturbing graft:
"For example, she says that the embrace of business practices is 'also changing what is being taught,' citing a state university where unprofitable 'degree programs in classics, German, French, and several other humanities departments were eliminated.' Subjects like these, its president told her, are 'stuff that you don't need.' At first hearing, this sounds shocking. In fairness, the book might have noted that faculty members in these fields continue to teach; indeed George Mason University continues to list ninety-two courses in these fields, including 'The Age of Goethe,' 'Medieval French Literature,' and 'Greek and Roman Comedy.' At the same time, she might have asked why, with an enrollment of 17,102, so few had chosen to major in the humanities. The standard answer is that students now want practical credentials, like degrees in business or computer science. Yet it is also possible that not enough professors tried to make their subjects interesting to a broader range of students. This can be done without betraying scholarly standards, or inflating grades, or resorting to showmanship. What is wanted is a serious commitment to undergraduate teaching, a trait not commonly found at research universities and those aspiring to that status."

French and German are not exactly obscure topics with no practical value, and to be frank, after a certain level most of the time you spend learning a language is spent reading literature. After all, that's what we do with English. If common foreign languages can't make the grade, what hope is there for the humanities in general?

I've always had another question about this sort of thing, though: How much does it cost to have a major that dropping them fulfills some economic purpose? Here at UW there is no major in Middle East Studies. We do, however, have many undergraduates who choose to construct their own major out of our existing courses. If we were to have a major, we'd have to add some sort of capstone seminar, but that would just take the place of an existing Middle East course and not cost the university anything. If schools still have their existing Classics or philosophy faculty, then what purpose is served by eliminating the major? The only other thing I can think of is student advising at large schools, but if there are that few students then you can just combine smaller majors into a general "foreign language majors" office that handles all of them.


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