Column: We need the humanities to help shape our work, and our lives

  • Mary Otto. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 1/23/2021 10:10:06 PM
Modified: 1/23/2021 10:10:05 PM

A holiday letter from a college classmate asked a provocative question: Has our education in the humanities made the isolation of COVID-19 easier to bear?

Yes, I thought. Absolutely, yes.

When she and I were undergraduates, there were two required classes for all entering freshmen, Humanities and Historical Studies. Their common texts drew us into intense discussions; our professors were often role models of civility and useful critics of our writing. For most, the courses were influential, introducing strategies for learning and hinting at the excitement of literature, history and the arts as lifelong pursuits. But for some like me, they were much more than that, serving to shape our work and our lives.

Having gone on from there to graduate school and a career in teaching English at the secondary and college levels, I was dismayed by the VtDigger article in early December. The piece announced that the University of Vermont aims to cut 12 majors and 11 minors in the humanities section of the College of Arts and Sciences by 2023, only two short years from now. According to VtDigger, UVM has acted with haste and without consulting department chairs or the Faculty Senate. The plan is to eliminate majors including religion, classics and romance languages, and to combine the departments of art, art history, music, theater and dance into a School of the Arts.

The rationale is, of course, financial. With anticipated shortfalls over the next few years of nearly $28 million, the UVM administration has chosen the humanities as the place to cut costs. The savings with this move? About $5 million. The argument is that these programs are actually bankrupting the system because of a 17% reduction in enrollment in liberal arts classes in general, from 2010 to 2016.

This decision by the University of Vermont could be seen as a logical response to a challenging financial picture. If the money isn’t there, reductions in spending must be made. And for at least some educators, the humanities are expendable, in contrast to STEM classes. Majors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, they say, lead more directly to employment and professional success, thereby making the cost of a college education worthwhile.

I submit that this plan to cut spending is a grave mistake. To my mind, the amount of money saved is insignificant, considering the consequences. Eliminating these programs will have devastating, long-term effects on the future of individual students, local institutions and communities. Students at every level — elementary, secondary, college and university — need the humanities, the liberal arts, as an integral part of their education. Advocating for reconsideration is crucial.

Why? A position paper issued on Dec. 9 by the director and co-director of the UVM Humanities Center explains the argument well. The humanities “are not marginal” but essential to offering all students courses and majors that “create better citizens and strengthen the nation by enriching the human experience.” The budget proposal “undermines the value of the Humanities … at Vermont’s flagship land grant university.”

The writers share my confidence in the efficacy of the humanities as tools not only for citizenship, but also for career success and a rich life. By engaging with life-changing texts in classes in the liberal arts, they go on to say, students have the opportunity to “understand human experience across language, place, and time.” As well, those students “build skills in inquiry, writing, and critical analysis … that are in high demand in diverse careers.”

I would add that a responsibility to the humanities in higher education is at this moment more important than it has ever been. In colleges today, it is estimated that more than half of the students are first-generation attendees. And like the United States in general, institutions of higher learning also reflect increasing diversity. Pulling these particular learners into strong humanities programs creatively integrated into the general curriculum promotes learning opportunities not available elsewhere. The shared experiences and common connections of these classes will ultimately have immense value for these students in the adult world after graduation.

The state of Vermont itself has a rich history with the humanities. Vermont’s list of well-known writers is long: Robert Frost, Wallace Stegner, Julia Alvarez, Katherine Paterson and Major Jackson are among those who have found Vermont an inspiration. Many kindred spirits invested in the humanities are active at the remarkable libraries across the state and at our independent bookstores. Others enrich lives in our schools and at the state’s innumerable small museums.

In Montpelier, the humanities are championed and promoted by the Vermont Humanities Council. The excellence of its offerings — kids’ summer camps, monthly adult lectures in multiple locations throughout the state, and programs for prisoners and veterans — has engaged me with the council’s work. Being on its board right now energizes my passion for the humanities.

Vermont Humanities was a recent recipient of a Schwartz Prize for outstanding programming, given by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and the National Humanities Alliance. The award recognized both the choice of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ March: Book One, as the 2019 “Vermont Reads” selection, and the events that surrounded it: 98 community projects across the state that culminated in the visit by Rep. Lewis to Burlington’s Flynn Center. Vermonters are deeply invested in the humanities.

In such an environment, the University of Vermont should seek to enhance, not abandon, its participatory and leadership roles in keeping the humanities strong.

As citizens of Vermont, we too need to promote engagement with the humanities wherever we can. It is a cradle-to-grave proposition. How we raise our children is the beginning. Our conversations with them and the books we read to them can be important. It can be useful to encourage classes and programs in the humanities in local schools. All such efforts are vital to creating a solid foundation for students when they go on to college — at UVM or elsewhere.

As a friend who is a classics professor commented in a recent conversation we had about teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, “It is difficult to describe the intensity of online teaching when one is trying so hard to give the students something of value to think about and the right kind of assignments that sharpen their analytical skills. Never before have I felt so fiercely that teaching puts me on the front line of fighting for an educated and thoughtful … citizen body.”

Such a commitment — to an educated and thoughtful citizen body — must be made by the University of Vermont, too.

For me, defending the humanities has become a necessity of the heart.

Mary K. Otto, formerly of Norwich, lives in Shelburne, Vt., and serves on the board of the Vermont Humanities Council. Email her at

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