business news in context, analysis with attitude

This commentary is available as both text and video; enjoy both or either ... they are similar, but not exactly the same. To see past FaceTime commentaries, go to the MNB Channel on YouTube.

Hi, Kevin Coupe here, and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy.

There was a story in the Seattle Times the other day that grabbed my attention, focusing on how “you won’t find a single expert on the history of the American Revolution or the Civil War at the University of Washington anymore. Since last year, the state’s oldest and largest university no longer employs a professor who specializes in American history before the year 1900.” And, “its history department has no scholars on the history of ancient Greece and Rome.”

The problem, the story says, is that “ever since the recession, parents and educators have encouraged students to major in subjects that lead to high-paying jobs, where employment opportunities are seemingly endless. But that swing to STEM is having unexpected consequences. With fewer students studying the humanities — history, philosophy, foreign languages and English — those departments are shrinking.”

The Times makes the point that the situation has economic implications - history and English classes are cheaper to teach than, say, engineering or computer sciences, but the university charges the same for both. Plus, a lot of the kids who arrive at the university have already taken advance placement courses for college credit, which means that they may not have to spend as much time and money in college as they might’ve in another time.

Speaking as someone who spends a fair amount of time on college campuses, I am sympathetic to the financial problem, though I think that in many ways some colleges have made this particular bed and now have to lie in it. They’re the ones that keep increasing tuition to the point that many people leave school with crippling debt …

I was chatting with Michael Sansolo about this the other day, and he remembered a story from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from a few months ago saying that the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point was “headed toward phasing out 13 low-demand humanities majors to reduce its nearly $8 million structural deficit.” Majors like history will be, well, history.

The Seattle Times story makes the point that “academics worry that the nation would be impoverished - both culturally and intellectually - if only an elite few understand the arc of American history, know how to find meaning in poetry, or can discuss the ideas of the great philosophers.”

Now, I’m no academic … just a sort of dilettante lucky enough to be an adjunct faculty member at Portland State University in Oregon. But I have to say I agree with the idea that college students who don’t learn about literature and history aren’t really getting an education.

You can learn a lot about how to think and analyze by studying history. You can learn a lot about how to express yourself through literature. I’d feel a lot better about the world if more scientists and lawyers and doctors had read more Shakespeare and Fitzgerald and maybe some Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood and even some Hemingway.

I’ve done some informal lobbying at Portland State to teach a class that would be a requirement for business majors that would teach them how to read and write effectively … but not business writing. I think the same kind of course could be taught to STEM students … they all might not see the relevance to their jobs and careers and paychecks, but it would be good for their minds and souls, and that’s what college ought to be about, too.

It’s been more than 40 years since I studied Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” but I can still remember patches of speeches that seem relevant today. Such as Portia’s lines…

“The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

And from Shylock, a treatise on bigotry:

”He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason?

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute—and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

That’s what I call an education.

It is what is on my mind this morning, and as always, I want to hear what is on your mind.

KC's View: