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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Carleton needs to rehumanize itself

Not long ago, The Carletonian published an article titled “Too many CS majors: a symptom of a bigger problem,” which discusses the fears of job security that trouble students through the major declaration process. As the educational associate for Africana Studies, I have observed the ongoing effects of this firsthand. I am writing to tell you with full conviction: it does not matter what your undergraduate degree is at a liberal arts college like Carleton. There has been little that is more destructive to the spirit of Carleton’s education than this anxiety about job security amid technological innovation, which computer science has been particularly poised to capitalize on.

Carleton students, you carry with you the stamp of approval from one of the most prestigious institutions in the country. Any employer is going to see the words “Carleton College” before they see what follows the “Bachelor’s in…” The rest depends on how well you can promote yourself. The reason why we’re known as Carleton College, premier liberal arts institution, as opposed to Carleton College of Computer Science and Economics, is because at this school, you are expected to learn more than is possible in a single discipline.

But since I started here, there seem to be ten more CS majors each year. Despite the constant advocacy from students and faculty insisting that the school needs to support opportunities in Africana studies, Latin American studies and Indigenous studies, which offer students tools for navigating the fraught politics of the time and open pathways towards building positive, conciliatory relationships with neighboring communities, the humanities have been struggling. Carleton is host to a number of interdisciplinary programs, including environmental studies, Middle Eastern studies, European studies and American studies, just to name a few. While each is in its own corner, many of them share challenges because of a lack of financial resources and personnel. 

Advocacy aside, the administration’s measure of success for a program comes down to its number of majors, minors and course registrations. In the past year and a half, Africana Studies has gained two faculty, including a new director, and a lounge on fourth Leighton. But we also had to cancel two classes planned for this Winter Term due to low enrollment. Is there enough student interest to sustain the growth we and countless others before us have worked so hard for?

The fact of the matter is, unless students register for interdisciplinary classes, the administration has no incentive to increase its investment in these areas. That means, with increasing enrollment in CS (and similar STEM fields), Carleton is inclined to give more money to CS and hire more CS faculty and staff, creating a feedback loop. Similarly, if students enroll in humanities courses, the school has the financial justification it needs to hire humanities faculty who expand the curricular diversity of the school. Whether you’re thinking about it or not, the courses you choose to take act as votes for what kinds of classes you want to see in the future and who you want to teach you. Your major declaration has a real financial impact as it advises the administration on who they should hire and therefore what research they can support and fund.

Are students opting out of interdisciplinary courses that deal heavily with race out of fear of being canceled while talking about race or other politicized topics? Is the tension of these spaces too much? While other departments may have courses that examine issues like race, they do not teach skills of humanistic dialogue which are vital for competently addressing the issues of diversity that shape our daily lives. If the liberal arts is intended to give learners a foundation for effective citizenship, every Carleton student should have to take a course fulfilling a requirement of racial literacy. I am not going to pretend that every conversation will be easy, but I can guarantee that you will learn more about yourself and the world by doing this than scrambling with thirty other students to solve a coding problem. Humanities classes do not have clear, easy right-or-wrong answers because the goal is to know yourself enough to respond to difficult issues in good faith.

I am arguing that Carleton needs to adjust its graduation requirements to ensure students are passing with the humanities background they need so that they can listen and speak with confidence on nuanced social and political issues. I have spoken with friends studying CS; they report that the many specific requirements, along with the competitive registrations, make it near impossible for them to take electives outside their major and minor. This is a structural issue that must be addressed, not a matter of personal choice.

Is it a fear of writing that deters students from the humanities? I warn you –– anyone who hides from writing in STEM courses –– ChatGPT is no substitute for a professional personality. It does not matter what kind of work you are doing, writing a cover letter is an essential skill that radically alters your work opportunities. Even if you’re tucked away in a chemistry lab, you can only stand to benefit from knowing how to communicate clearly in speech and writing, to write on your own and to critically examine the institutions you participate in. At their best, humanities classes are curricular spaces in which students study material in order to learn about themselves or reflect on their position in the world, enabling them to act confidently as independent people.

There is no greater embodiment of the ethic of the liberal arts than interdisciplinary studies. First, it is a reminder that disciplines and departments are constructed, that all the fine lines between one form of knowledge and another have been raised artificially more for the purpose of allocating funds than understanding the world. Critical thinking, then, becomes the unique challenge of navigating the undefined spaces between situated institutions of knowledge. In many respects, interdisciplinary approaches are paving the frontier of academic knowledge to tackle the social and political issues that dominate public discourse.

But with the trends in education towards CS, it has been increasingly common to question the value of the humanities. The administration needs to acknowledge that there are structural issues affecting course registration, and that it, in fact, encourages students to continue pursuing certain limiting pathways within the same disciplines. At the same time, students need to recognize that it ultimately falls on them to make a change. If you have been avoiding the humanities, it is up to you to rehumanize yourself.


Cameron Kelley ’23 is an educational assistant for the Africana Studies department at Carleton College.

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    MaxMar 4, 2024 at 6:16 pm

    This was a good read and offers a valuable perspective on the necessity for Carleton to maintain its mission at providing a diverse and liberal education to its students. However, there are a few important pieces of the puzzle that I think are not examined here.

    Firstly, while I agree that people of all majors can excel in their career, especially from Carleton, there should be some empathy shown to students who live with anxiety about financial stability. Many students at Carleton did not go to private high schools and/or do not have parents that have attended competitive universities, and these students may not have a good understanding of how an education in the humanities at an elite university can lead to financial success. The points that this article states feel like they come from students who have had proximity to people who succeeded greatly in the humanities at elite institutions, which is not the norm for most people. Students with access to financial support and elite social circles know that if they stutter in their career path, they will have the connections and economic support of their families to back them up. Many students, such as myself and other STEM major friends, see job security as the number one priority when choosing their education path as there is no safety net for them.

    Also, I think this article falls a bit into the trap of demonizing STEM majors as entirely ignorant outside their field. While it is true that the socially ignorant comp sci bro exists, so does the art history major who has little understanding of quantitative reasoning skills and also solely studies a restrictive, commonly very white, version of art. There are many STEM majors who pursue interests in the humanities and who are driven in their STEM studies by how they view the social effects of their field. A liberal arts education should go both ways and sometimes it feels like the discourse suggests that only STEM majors are lacking while turning a blind eye to the faults of the humanities.

    Finally, on funding, this article brings up valuable points that there are dangerous trends in the funding of humanities departments that could lead to an eventual collapse of them. This of course would be devastating to the liberal arts education experience and the often-underappreciated impacts of these departments would be dearly missed. However, this article does not give any water to the real struggles of many STEM majors who cannot access the classes they want. STEM courses in general have far larger class sizes and can be incredibly difficult to get a spot in compared to many, if not all, of the humanities departments. There are real issues with the amount of resources they have available for the size of their departments.We should do better to make students aware of other paths outside of CS and STEM, but we need to support all students to be able to excel in their educational path.

    I hope this response doesn’t come across as too combative as I do agree with many of the points of this article. It’s critical to make students known about their ability to succeed in many different education paths at Carleton outside of STEM, especially those who have backgrounds outside of the elite liberal university bubble. I just wanted to play some defense for the other side of the story that should also be considered as we navigate the future of liberal arts education.