It might seem like a quaint idea, but a college or university education should be much more than a means to a well-paying job upon graduation. At its best, higher education can and should prepare students for life -- to be human beings and citizens, not just cogs in the machine of commerce.
For that, students should get a broad background in all the disciplines -- natural sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, humanities and fine arts.
But in the current economic climate, that goal is threatened.
As state funding for our public colleges and universities continues to decline, institutions increasingly rely on alternative revenue -- gifts, grants, contracts, sponsorships, commercial partnerships and enterprises, intellectual property licensing agreements, technology transfers and more.
Not surprisingly, some disciplines are better able to tap external funding than others -- such as business, medicine and engineering. Others, such as the humanities, are left to wither.
For their part, students and their parents looking to the job market may be desperate to pursue "practical" majors -- such as accounting or computer science -- though humanities majors tend to fare as well as other degree holders in admission to law, medical and business schools and in long-term career prospects.
So we get proposals like that by Andrew Policano, dean of UC Irvine's business school, urging universities to expand fields with "high profitability" and downsize fields with "negative cash flow." It's not difficult to see which fields win and lose in a quest for profitability. Today's Forum cover piece by Peter Schrag asks, "Are the humanities being starved?" The answer is an obvious "yes." The humanities in this era of competition for external funds increasingly are treated as a dispensable luxury.
So what to do? Those who would resist the trend toward "public-no-more" universities -- and who believe broad exposure to the arts and sciences remains important -- have to step up.
They should ask legislators, as well as the boards and leaders of our public higher education institutions -- the University of California, California State University and California Community Colleges -- what they are doing to fix the problem.
UC President Mark Yudof told Schrag he shares "anxiety" about the erosion of the humanities and vowed to do "some fundraising." But that, too, is an issue. When university presidents -- and increasingly deans, department chairs and faculty -- are caught up in dollar-generating initiatives, they lose focus on the public aims of education.
That said, those in the humanities and other disciplines unlikely to draw big outside bucks should be doing more to reach out to a general audience, beyond the esoteric discourse of their specialized fields. Even the humanities should be able to draw charitable gifts and endowed chairs for teaching and research.
The erosion of the humanities is but a symptom of economic pressures on our public colleges and universities. It should spark a larger conversation about increasing privatization and the meaning of public higher education in California.