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Letter to the Editor: Encouraging humanities requires attention before and after admission

The small percentage of humanities majors at Rice may reflect a situation deeper than admission policies.

By Lora Wildenthal     9/26/17 11:52pm

Dear Thresher and Lizzie Bjork,

Lizzie Bjork portrays well the serious situation regarding the humanities nationally and at Rice.

What can we do about it?

At the heart of the problem is the shrinkage in the overall number of self-described humanities applicants. Lizzie’s statistics indicate as much. I worry that too many “influencers” of student decision-making take a short-term view of education as vocational training. They fail to appreciate the lifelong value of intercultural knowledge and the ability to analyze ambiguous information and rhetoric. And while all majors offered at Rice should emphasize writing, humanities majors are more likely to pay greater attention to writing because our disciplines take seriously not only what is said but how. The relevance of humanities-related analytical abilities to our country’s current crisis is overwhelming. Unfortunately, some adults’ fears about our ongoing national and world crises lead them to steer young people toward seemingly more marketable majors.

Students should follow their passions, because that is where they will perform best. The practical skills that can help them adapt to a wider range of workplaces can be acquired along the way.

If Rice were to go deeper into its pool of applicants next year to increase humanities numbers, I see two kinds of difficulties:

1. Going significantly deeper into the current application pool means admitting students who are not in the competitive range in which Rice moves. There is no currently existing pool of well-qualified humanities applicants to Rice that the Office of Admission has been ignoring. The pool, not Admission, has been favoring areas other than the humanities. None of us would welcome the humanities at Rice being associated with significantly reduced admissions requirements. We need to build the application pool itself.

2. Regardless of what is stated on an application to Rice, students are free to declare any major they want once they are here (except music or architecture). There is a lot of movement in and out of Rice’s schools, in all directions, between application and graduation. Therefore, admitting more high schoolers who say they plan to study humanities may not do as much as we would hope. It’s important to admit an entering class with the greatest diversity of interests and accomplishments possible, and then help them find their way — including to the humanities, if that is their passion, without baseless fears of underemployment.

The School of Humanities has ideas on the table for the new Dean of Humanities Kathleen Canning (starting January 2018) and our new Vice President for Enrollment Yvonne Romero da Silva to consider, and they have yet more ideas. We can spur more of the applications we seek.

Once each cohort of first-year students is on our campus, the students with humanities interests need to see more departmental humanities faculty in their first-year writing intensive seminars (which remain predominantly humanities-focused, even if they no longer count for distribution), more humanities Peer Academic Advisors in their colleges during Orientation Week, and more opportunities to discuss these problems with humanities majors and alumni.

Lora Wildenthal

Interim Dean of Humanities

Professor of History

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