I no longer live in Tulsa, but I still consider it home.
The city, as well as how I was raised and educated there, informs who I am and will be. For this reason, when Tulsa institutions ask me to come home and lend a hand — whether it be speaking at the synagogue where I was bar-mitzvahed or the high school I attended, or showing films at the beloved Circle Cinema — I’m always happy to do so.
One such institution has been, and hopefully will continue to be, the University of Tulsa, where I have been a guest lecturer on several occasions, and where I was admitted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society several years ago (rather than through the actual university I attended).
Each time I visit the TU campus, I swell with pride that such a university exists in my own city, sui generis, with its wide flat lawns, limestone buildings and airy openness to the neighborhood surrounding it. More importantly, the students and professors I have encountered there evince an open curiosity and an intellectual pride inspiring not only anyone who steps onto the campus, but our city and state as a whole.
Under recent leadership, TU climbed steadily in the rankings of the nation’s top 100 liberal arts institutions.
As everyone knows, the economics of education are changing rapidly in the United States, with rising costs and oppressive student debt causing many to question the “value” of certain departments, and even the ongoing viability of institutions, many of which are closing down. Under new leadership, TU finds itself immersed in the unenviable task of having to examine how it is to move forward with any degree of sustainability.
I have very little knowledge concerning the fiscal realities facing what constitutes Oklahoma’s leading private university, meaning it would be irresponsible of me to question the immediate efficacy of what’s being proposed by way of drastic cuts not only in personnel, but of entire departments, almost all of them in the humanities.
The TU administration insists that the school remains committed to the humanities in curriculum and outside programs, and I take them at their word.
They describe programs to be eliminated as those in which fewer students are enrolling, and I won’t dispute that either, other than to say that the classics department at the university I attended graduated only 32 from a class of more than 1,000.
I’ll also predict that their plans to cut back on the liberal arts and focus instead on more “career ready” instruction will make the university solvent and sustainable in the near term.
Finally, I won’t question anyone’s motive. I’m certain everyone involved in promoting these changes has what they consider the best possible (maybe to them the only possible) future for the institution in mind.
What I can and will question, however, is the trend nationwide, which catalyzed surprisingly under President Obama, to quantify, in terms of cost per student and dollars earned by graduates, the “value” of certain academic subjects.
The wielding of this pecuniary approach when considering the humanities, with the idea of slashing those not measuring up, strikes me as wrong-headed and deeply unfair. Moreover, while it might serve short-term needs by helping to balance books on paper, it will ramify in ways that will exacerbate the very problems it hopes to address.
STEM courses — those focused on math, sciences and engineering — can be easily quantified.
A student goes to TU and majors in computer science. He or she can use that degree to obtain an entry-level job or continue to graduate-level studies with the hope eventually for even more remunerative work. The same can be argued for degrees in engineering, biology and, of course, business, among others.
The humanities, however, don’t work this way. One does not major in Latin, Russian literature, history or religious studies with an eye toward what remuneration might follow; the intentions are ineffable and rarely quantifiable.
Students in the humanities mostly accept the fact their degrees won’t translate directly into acquisitive careers.
I studied classics in college because I wanted the most foundational education I could receive in anticipation of a life in the arts. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made, even though as a filmmaker, playwright and actor, there would appear to be little direct connection to what I now do.
And therein lies the fallacy in the arguments being made to gut humanities departments at financially imperiled universities and colleges because they don’t overtly demonstrate their monetary value. Few pursue liberal arts studies with the intention of making money within those fields, but rather with the simple goal of getting a well-rounded education that might nuance and enrich the understanding and mastery of whatever field he or she does pursue.
Most college students in the humanities do what I did: They earn what I’d call foundational degrees in everything from literature to ancient civilizations to philosophy or psychology with an aim toward careers in a gamut of fields from the law to advertising to social services to entrepreneurship to filmmaking.
Many go to business school (as my brother did after a history degree) or medical school (as one of my best friends from college did with his American studies degree).
Quite erroneously, however, when those slavish to the pecuniary metric go to analyze their data, they’ll cite only the business and medical school studies of these two preceding examples, as if the degrees in the humanities happened almost in spite of the students’ later pursuits. The humanities, while being inculpated for much of what strains university resources, get little of the credit for any of their profound and salutary impact.
Finally, few ever care to examine how STEM and business majors pursue humanities courses when available to them.
In college, I studied Virgil and Livy, Socrates and Aristotle alongside many a math and science major who recognized the value of shaping for themselves a complete education not simply with their careers or even GPAs in mind, but their future as citizens of the world.
TU has its vaunted honors program for just this purpose, compelling all admitted into it to read a compendium of foundational texts. Humanities courses do just what the name suggests: they deepen our humanity.
A computer science major who reads Tolstoy in Russian literature will be a better and more nuanced thinker (even in his own field), and he’ll inevitably, it seems to me, have a better chance at being a great citizen of the world. He’ll act with more sensitivity, more generosity, more equanimity, more decency.
It frankly astonishes me that there isn’t more public emphasis of that core value in the actions and rhetoric of those charged with addressing the issues facing TU.
I said near the outset that I don’t question the motives of the TU president, its provost and board. I believe quite sincerely they wish only the best for a university so cherished by the city and state. Their task, to say the least, is a difficult one.
I will posit, however, that their well-intentioned methods for determining so-called “value” in certain departments and professorships is deeply pernicious in ways that will bring lasting and permanent damage.
Without robust programs in the humanities, the university itself will recede from its place as a leading institution not only in our state but our region.
Those students pursuing majors in the departments that remain will rightly seek educations elsewhere at institutions that haven’t made the misguided determination that everything should be measured solely in terms of dollars and cents.
Tim Blake Nelson is a native of Tulsa, graduate of Holland Hall, Brown University and Juilliard School. He is an actor, writer and director.