Last month my friend and colleague Dr. Thomas Frangenberg, a respected scholar and professor of Italian Renaissance Art, died in a London hospital. He was only sixty years old. The previous year, his teaching post at the University of Leicester was terminated in the name of austerity. People close to Thomas agree that his firing directly contributed to his untimely death. Personal loss aside, it was hard for me not to see Thomas’s termination as symbolic and symptomatic of the humanities’ current predicament. When a well-regarded teacher dedicated to educating students in one of the essential humanist subjects is made redundant by the increasingly transactional system of higher education, it sends a clear message that the system sees little value in the humanities. The inevitable conclusion is that universities’ longtime mission of educating citizens is devolving into the provision of vocational training to the future work force.
Just days before Thomas’s passing, and approximately four thousand miles away from Leicester, the University of Wisconsin system’s Chancellor and Board of Regents publicized their plan to overhaul the UW–Stevens Point curriculum by cutting thirteen liberal arts programs (including History, Philosophy, Political Science, and English), replacing them with Computer Information Systems, Management, and Marketing programs that “will prepare graduates for a successful career path.” This curricular revamp was attempted under the guise of “meet[ing] the evolving needs of students,” and justified by a fall in enrollments, low tuition revenues, and an evolving employment landscape. In other words, humanities subjects could no longer be taken for granted as part of basic university education. The priority, from now on, should be given to technical training programs that teach applied skills, not critical thinking, still less the foundations of human culture and society.
Upsetting as the news from UW–Stevens Point was, it was another philistine attack on education at a second University of Wisconsin school that really shocked me because, this time, it was my alma mater, UW–Madison. Its libraries are to be redesigned in an attempt to create “a more user-centric experience for their patrons,” which involves removing portions of the open-stack collection. Those of us who had the pleasure and privilege of experiencing Kohler Library’s fantastic collection of art books firsthand know exactly how much is at stake. I remember Kohler’s holdings well. Its open stacks contain all sorts of treasures, including a complete run of the hard-to-come-by Russian turn-of-the-century periodical The World of Art, and just on the other side of the reading room the one-hundred-plus volumes of The Illustrated Bartsch—a seminal compendium of European master prints. The former is a deluxe bilingual edition that can only be appreciated in its printed form—the images and text on facing pages are meant to work in tandem, both visually and semantically. Browsing through dozens of volumes of the latter was the only reason I stumbled upon an image based on Hieronymus Bosch’s Adoration of the Magi triptych (ca. 1485–1500), which in turn led me to write my first serious paper about the ecumenical motifs in the painting (for which I received a scholarship which made possible a research visit to the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg). I wrote the Bosch paper for Professor Jane Hutchison’s proseminar in Northern European art. When she suggested that I should “go and take a look at Bartsch,” all I had to do is walk from her office to the library and start looking. How else could an undergraduate be expected to find an image among literally thousands of others dispersed in multiple volumes?
But maybe the problem is that an undergraduate is no longer expected to do any unsupervised looking. In my most recent experience overseeing undergraduate research papers at Arizona State University, where I taught from 2011 to 2014, I noticed that most of my students had little taste for exploring, preferring the shortcuts of digested information to make the most of their “study time.” It would have been alien to suggest that they just “go and take a look at” anything, because they expected pre-packaged instructions that would render a finite amount of information easily available for use in a paper. This approach is fundamentally transactional: I provide students with precise bibliographical information, students use this specific text in a paper, then I reciprocate with a grade. It eliminates open-ended learning—one of the key characteristics of the humanities (we look at footnotes and bibliographies for more sources, we make new bibliographies, we take notes just in case we might stumble upon something useful later). When one writes a paper in a humanities discipline, one can never assume it is possible to learn everything there is to know about the subject. There is always more to read, and the best scholars I know are perfectly at peace with the idea that learning never stops.
For this reason, open-stacks access is essential to the serious and dedicated study of humanities, and the UW–Madison administration’s promise to “invest in user experiences that inspire the creation, discovery, and sharing of knowledge” has a hollow ring. Books cannot be replaced with “inspiring spaces,” despite what was concluded in the course of a scoping exercise conducted by a team of consultants hired “to uncover key insights into patrons’ current behaviors and future needs.” (Could they be talking about that ubiquitous mod replica seating where students—I mean “patrons”—can peruse their social media in search of “inspiration”?) Students are not “users,” unless universities rebrand themselves into “providers.” Which, judging by the direction these Wisconsin schools are proposing to take, seems to be the aim.
I learned about the impending renovations of the UW–Madison libraries from a petition opposing them. I signed the petition, along with 1,039 others, and it appears that the administration is taking our resistance to the renovations into account. Likewise, following a pushback against the original UW–Stevens Point proposal, a new one is now in the works. If we have any chance of forestalling the mutation of higher education into an educational services industry, keeping the ethos of the humanities as open-ended, non-transactional exploration is vital.