It was the first day of class and everything was going according to schedule. Picking up books, running into about a hundred people at the Rez and sweating more than I’d like to admit while walking up the hill. I made my usual rounds and headed to my art history class, one I took in part to complete my fine arts requirement and in part because, well, I really enjoy studying art.
My class of about forty is located in the basement of Jackson Gym. There is one small, rectangular window illuminating the room. There is a projector and a pull-down screen. There are no whiteboard erasers, and only one marker. There are not enough desks for the students enrolled, so some sit on chairs by the door. I’m confused, but it’s the first day, so I assure myself that most people are just shopping for classes and that we’ll have enough room by next time. After class is finished, I head to my next class, a 100-level political science course. It was originally supposed to be in one of Tisch Library’s auditorium spaces, but was mysteriously moved to another basement classroom just down the hall. Same story: not enough seats, no erasers, one whiteboard pen, no windows.
Since we are in Aidekman, rehearsal spaces are audible. I am trying to listen to my professor explain structural theories of revolution while music is blasting in a classroom nearby. Class ends, and pissed-off by this point, I go to Eaton to print out the syllabus (I missed a few details due to the music next door). I crack. My once-beloved Eaton is now a “collaborative space for engineers.” Engineering students have free printing in the air-conditioned computer labs in Halligan, but no students have free printing in Tisch, or even in Ginn. Call me ignorant, but from my own experience and from observing friends in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), liberal arts students use printers a lot more often. But, the privileges do not stop there: STEM students have 574 Boston Ave., which is basically Google’s incarnation on campus, and soon will possess an expansive, glass complex behind Anderson. And now, I guess STEM has Eaton too.
Although not as liberal arts oriented as some of its sister NESCAC colleges, Tufts has long embraced the humanities — our comparably extensive language and arts requirements are just two examples of this. Of course, in recent years, engineering and computer science have become more popular among incoming students due to increasing external demands for these disciplines and because of admission’s recruitment of these students. Tufts isn’t exactly covert about its retreat from the liberal arts. Take a look at our website’s front page and see that the two top headlines involve new developments in STEM programs: “A Boost for Engineering Students,” and “Coding for Kids Goes International.” Yet, despite this, a majority of Tufts undergraduates — about 90 percent — are still in the School of Arts and Sciences. Additionally, data taken from the graduating class of 2015 showed that 48 percent of the class earned bachelor’s degrees in the humanities (language, philosophy, social sciences, history and the arts), while only six percent graduated with computer science degrees and nine percent with engineering degrees. So, in many ways, Tufts’ neglect of the humanities is the neglect of the majority of its academic program for the needs of a newly powerful few.
Of course, Tufts is hardly the only university pushing away from its roots in the arts or social sciences. Cooper Union in New York City recently diverted a large portion of its funding from its historic visual arts program and rescinded its previous policy of full financial aid, instead establishing a large engineering complex under the guidance of Jamshed Bharucha. Interestingly, prior to working at Cooper Union, Bharucha served on Tufts’ board of trustees.
Recently, a Washington Post article by professor Steven Pearlstein criticized parents and institutions discouraging students from pursuing a liberal arts education, stating, “it’s worth remembering that at American universities, the original rationale for majors was not to train students for careers. Rather, the idea was that after a period of broad intellectual exploration, a major was supposed to give students the experience of mastering one subject, in the process developing skills such as discipline, persistence, and how to research, analyze, communicate clearly and think logically. As it happens, those are precisely the skills business executives still say they want from college graduates.” Accordingly, a study for the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 93 percent of employers agreed that “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a job candidate’s] undergraduate major.”
I could go on about the error in judgment that institutions and leaders have made when embracing STEM at the expense of other areas of study, but for the sake of time (and maybe my sanity), let’s get back to Tufts. Tufts’ mission statement reads: “We are committed to providing transformative experiences for students and faculty in an inclusive and collaborative environment where creative scholars generate bold ideas, innovate in the face of complex challenges and distinguish themselves as active citizens of the world.” While of course, the administration could argue that changes to Eaton’s lab facilities as well as the creation of new spaces on campus like 574 Boston Ave. promote collaboration, this is only for one segment of the student population, and is not cross-cutting.
Troublingly, as Pearlstein suggests, those who discourage students from pursuing a broader, liberal arts education are doing a deep disservice even in economic terms, reminding us that employers are “seeking employees who are nimble, curious and innovative … The good jobs of the future will go to those who can collaborate widely, think broadly and challenge conventional wisdom — precisely the capacities that a liberal arts education is meant to develop.”
With this in mind, Tufts’ choice to distance itself from the humanities limits the extent of “innovation” and “active citizenship” its students and alumni can truly engage in. What “active citizen” is not versed in ethics, in political science, in the psychology of themselves and others? What kind of innovative society is detached from the cultural, anthropological and social history of its ancestors? Innovation is not solely about mechanical improvements to technology; it also necessitates the understanding of a nexus of other topics — art, literature, sociology, history and language to name a few. Neglecting structural needs in the humanities, while donating an outrageous sum of money, attention and prestige to STEM isn’t just “unfair”— it is deeply hypocritical given Tufts’ aims as an institution. The day I will be able to take an upper-level political science class in an air-conditioned building, or a quiet classroom conducive to learning — one with windows or even enough desks and supplies — isn’t here yet. Given the direction the university is heading, I probably shouldn’t hold my breath.