Steaming About STEM

The world is a changing place, which I’m sure is all for the better, except for the part where none of it feels better.

Here locally, we have a liberal arts college, I mean university, busily abandoning the liberal arts. I was going to write about this a month ago, but I thought I would go back and re-read the article in the local newspaper, which I haven’t managed yet, and then each week more information appears in the paper, all of which I have skimmed but not actually read.

My initial take was going to be that while these proposed changes — to eliminate music as a major and dramatically trim all the majors close to my heart, like history and English — are visceral, maybe it’s a function of keeping up with the times. Market-wise, if these studies aren’t in demand, perhaps it’s time to shift focus; after all, very few places offer Greek or Latin any more, despite those being the underpinnings of a classical education. But it still feels like an abandonment of Western’s guiding principals.

I get it, sort of: right now we — and by we, I seem to mean parents — are all about the bang for our buck, and we expect an immediate return on investment for this large outlay of cash. And no matter how some people try to shoehorn that ‘A’ in there, we are focusing mightily on the STEM — Sciences, Technology, Engineering, Math. No room for Arts, even though it doesn’t make the acronym any less functional (STEAM).

I don’t get why it doesn’t occur to people that these STEM fields all stem from that same creative space, the space that the arts help nurture. Not being much of a scientist I can’t explain it to you, but music somehow functions on a very mathematical level, and many science/engineer types also excel at music.

I think back, frequently, to an encounter I happened upon one day when it really was Western State College. I had stopped to see one of my several friends named Mark, this one a creative writer who had been in the family mortuary business in Texas until his inner poet became his outer self.

Mark, once upon a time the chair of the CALL Department (Communication Arts, Languages and Literature), was hosting a former student in his office, and I came by just as she was excitedly telling him about the job she had just landed. She majored in English with an interest in computer science, and got hired by a company that was thrilled with her skill set. She reported that the company told her, “We can teach the computer part, but we can’t teach people to write.” In other words, she got hired by a computer company because she was an English major.

At New Western, I’m not sure how much of a CALL Department there will be for graduates to come back to. In a world that grows increasingly more global, Western has been busily phasing out any foreign language offerings for years. You might be able to take a class or two in Spanish, but I think that’s your choice. Now, in its two-year studied wisdom, a committee has decided that literature is a dead art too.

The reason I need to go back and re-read the original article before writing this post is that a committee, very defensively defended by a trio of administrators in a subsequent letter to the editor (which I also only skimmed) is because I don’t understand how all of this enriches the college, I mean university. And by enriches, I don’t mean in the academic sense that colleges were once known for, but in cold, hard cash.

I understand a college needs money to function. Here in Colorado, thanks to conflicting mandates imposed by the voters, very little remains in our state budget that can be cut — except for higher education. So dollar after dollar gets lopped off year after year, until we are way down in the 48th-50th range in terms of funding higher ed as a state.

Out come the tuition increases, and the room and board hikes. And the fees. Don’t forget the fees. A previous administration, caught up in the craze sweeping campuses nationwide that you had to build it better and bigger for students to come — ice cream machines! New dorms! Fieldhouses! — has saddled generations of students with the responsibility of paying for all these amenities through fees. But it was going to be the path to riches. Even if the current administration is feeling mightily bogged down by this massive debtload.

Even before that, a prior previous generation of trustees somehow felt we would be better off without graduate programs — this was going to be the path the riches. Instead it nearly pulled the school under, and now we’re busy re-installing graduate programs one program at a time.

This current proposal, which may be just about a done deal, leaves Western in the peculiar position of cutting way back on undergraduate creative writing while offering a graduate degree in that specific field. No one has said what might happen to the graduate program associated with the undergrad program that’s being sliced right out of the curriculum, and I confess to being a bit confused, because I thought I read that this committee feels campus is overstaffed with teachers of literature, but can’t seem to find any instructors for creative writing. Which is weird, because you can uncover a creative writer with every step you take around here, and you should have an entire phalanx at the ready through your graduate degree.

Another money-making scheme Western had a few years back was to add some women’s sports. Of all the schools of higher education in Colorado, Western is the only one that teaches more men than women, and for some reason they find it difficult to recruit women — or retain them, once they are here. So, soccer and swimming, which is all fine and well, but I never could figure out how spending $100,000 per program to get $50,000 worth of students was making the college money. And now there’s a unloved swim coach who has banned all use of the campus pool to not just townspeople but all students who aren’t varsity swimmers (including athletes from other sports who used to use the pool for training and injury rehab), so the school is spending money to maintain a pool for the exclusive use of 16 women. If that doesn’t make them feel special, what will?

While I understand the need to be budget-conscious, and I understand parents want a return on their investment, preferably as soon as possible, and I understand that some subjects are not as popular with the students as they once were, I don’t understand a college, I mean university, that has suddenly decided its liberal arts mission is expendable.

I have skimmed a few letters in the paper offering creative means of shoring up the budget without slicing right through the heart of campus. And maybe this committee countenanced that, although from the paper it seemed like it all came down to a cold cash calculation, although I still don’t understand how making music a minor instead of a major, which still requires faculty, saves all the money this committee assures us it will.

I would feel better about its assurances if I wasn’t looking over a pile of enacted plans, not a one of which seems to have brought about the desired financial prosperity. I’m sure this is the one plan that will be different from all those that have come before it, and as long as we’re turning out cash-making automatons rather than free-thinkers who used their college years to start finding themselves, that’s all that matters, right?

As long as it’s our path to riches . . .

One thought on “Steaming About STEM

  1. I re-read your letter about the proposed changes in curriculum and find it very distressing, to say the least. To quote the WSC Alama Mater “Beloved Western” is now gone away to the waste bin.
    Your letter spoke to the details and only distress me to repeat them. My family was involved in the Music program from knowing Ms. Reading, Dr. Hawkins, John Kincade, Music Camp, and The
    Firemen’s Benefit Concert Series. Winter Sports including Swen Wiki on Downhill and Cross Country skiing all fell away. I remember Paul Wright and his effect on WSC Sports [football, backetball]. All gone to history. And the unfortunate truth is that when the older generation dies the memories fade quickly.


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