Montana Tech is becoming a “special focus” institution. Nothing has officially been decided, but it seems this change will mean that the curriculum will be more narrowly “focused” on the STEM courses (science, technology, engineering, and math).
As an English professor who has taught at Montana Tech for almost thirty years, I’m naturally wondering what this change will mean for the future of the liberal arts at Tech. Will our liberal arts degree be dropped? Will the content of our courses be changed to better “fit the focus”?
In addressing these questions, let me start by stressing that a liberal arts major is an eminently practical degree. A recent survey by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found that “87% of all workers with a bachelor’s degree in the humanities reported they were satisfied with their jobs...comparable to graduates from almost every other field.”
In fact, four of the six members of the Board of Regents, all successful business people, have a bachelor’s degree in some field of the humanities.
At Tech, most humanities majors are tied to Butte by jobs or families or both. The vast majority of our graduates are successfully employed, working in fields ranging from grant writing to social services to graduate study.
But studying the liberal arts promises you more than just a good job. The Ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, famously said, “Only the examined life is worth living.” In other words, you must peer into your soul, scrutinize the world around you, think independently, in order to be fully alive. The liberal arts enable you to lead the “examined life.”
Take Shakespeare. There is a popular misconception that Shakespeare wrote exclusively for an aristocratic or intellectual elite. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Shakespeare was a commercial playwright, who wrote to make money, and so had to please a broad audience, from the “groundlings,” the poor people who paid a penny for a ticket and filled the standing-room only section directly in front of the stage, to the merchant class who occupied the boxes that surrounded the circular Globe Theater, to Queen Elizabeth I herself, who regularly attended performances.
In short, to succeed, Shakespeare had to please everyone, and he did so magnificently, filling his plays with plenty of on-stage violence and low humor. What’s remarkable is not that the plays are entertaining, but that they are also profound, memorably exploring the mysteries of human life.
The other disciplines of the humanities are similarly mind-expanding. As the philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it”; such wisdom is especially needed in these politically turbulent times, as we try to figure out how to proceed into the future. Psychology enables us to explore the intricacies of the human mind. Philosophy raises basic questions of human existence, such as how to lead a moral life, and how to come to terms with our mortality. Music enchants us with a taste of the sublime.
The humanities even make you a better engineer. A good engineer must be creative, able to use the right as well as the left side of her brain. Since the humanities embrace the complexity and ambiguity of life, they enable engineers to think in precisely this way.
The Montana University System’s financial problems, including those we face at Montana Tech, result from legislative under-funding. In 1992, the state paid for 78% of a MUS student’s education. Today, that number has dropped to 39%.
Montana Tech administrators should demand that the legislature reverse this deplorable trend. If Montana politicians truly believe in the importance of public higher education, they should be willing to pay for it.