This has been a difficult year, probably the most challenging I've had in my 23 year career at Western Illinois University. In light of a politically manufactured budget crisis and the heightened scrutiny of programs that aren't perceived as giving the state a positive return on its investment, I've thought a lot lately about the value of higher education, and of public higher education in particular.
Coming from a family of academics, I’ve always thought the opportunity to continue one's education after high school was important, and to be completely honest, I was probably twelve before I realized that not everybody went to college. While I was obviously a little naive, the idea that everyone should have the opportunity to continue their education stuck with me. I think that's why WIU is such a good fit for me... we've always worked hard to make higher education accessible.
Public colleges and universities around the country have been tasked with becoming more cost efficient, but in Illinois, it has recently become an absolute means of survival. In of itself, cost efficiency is not a bad idea, but just as cutting our personal budgets means having to choose between some expenses over others, universities are forced to make difficult choices about who and what stays and what may be cut. The human and economic toll of layoffs and furloughs are unmistakable; less evident may be the effect of cuts on the education we offer our students.
Even worse perhaps is the "them and us" attitude that financial crisis can arouse, breaking down collegiality and morale, as protecting our own programs causes us to challenge the value of others.
We need to be reminded that while academic departments and their faculty primarily focus on what their own programs offer, students experience a much broader curriculum than any one program provides.
To protect the curriculum as a whole, we must continue to ask ourselves, "What's the point of going to college?" The first answer for many is for students to get a better job than they would with a high school diploma. Future employment is undoubtedly an important consideration, especially with the amount of student debt many students incur. I don't know anyone in education who doesn't want their students to have successful careers, and as a parent of one college student, with another close on her heels, it's certainly something I think about. As soon as my daughter said she was going to major in art history, the first question on my lips was, "And what do you plan to do with that?" The ability to find meaningful, satisfying, and gainful employment is definitely a goal of higher education.
But is it the only goal? I would say no. Higher education provides skills that are useful to not only students' future employment, but to their lives as well. Beyond what is good for the individual student, a well-educated populace is an asset for the country, both economically and politically.
As a political scientist I think the very success of democracy is reliant on citizens who can think critically, come to independent conclusions, and understand the complexity and diversity of both the social and natural world. However, several programs that have as their stated mission the exploration of diverse perspectives, such as my home department of Women's Studies, African American Studies, Religious Studies, and Bilingual and Bicultural Education, are small and thus vulnerable to the state's cuts in funding. Yet, it's important to recognize the value these programs add to all of our students' education.
As someone who teaches women's studies, I have an excellent vantage point to see how learning about diversity has a positive effect on our students. For instance, in my Introduction to Women's Studies class, we start with the recognition that from the moment the doctor says "It's a boy" or "It's a girl," we're placed on a path that is largely affected by the roles we're expected to play as boys and girls and as men and women. If we add to that the layers of difference created by race, ethnicity, religion, language, and sexual orientation, we see that the human experience is complex and that our understanding of the world may be limited and incomplete if we only look through our own eyes.
The importance of exposing students to difference was brought home again just recently, when a student from my Intro to Women's Studies class talked to me for over an hour about a paper he was writing for his English composition class. The topic he selected was why women and gender studies courses should be offered at the high school level. I asked him why he thought this and he very frankly said, "Because I'd never thought about this stuff before and it's important."
He continued by saying that he wonders about the people from his high school who may never think about something as fundamental as the effect of gender expectations on our lives.
I joke with my students that with rare exception, I can link women's studies to any of their majors, and seeing a prospective women's studies major or minor sitting right across the desk from me, I asked him what his major was. When he responded "supply chain management," I laughed and admitted he may have stumped me, that I needed a little more time to come up with a link to women's studies. He then claimed he already knew the link. His hope is to eventually be a manager or business owner and be in the position to hire people. He said, "Without this class, I may never have given much thought to gender discrimination. I don't want to be the sort of manager or employer who discriminates against people, even unintentionally. I know what to watch for now." I could have cried.
To me, that's the value of diversity within the curriculum, a curriculum that provides a wealth of skills, ideas, experiences, views, and perspectives to all of our students. No single program can do that alone, so we need to continue working together.
Aimee Shouse is Chairperson of the Department of Women’s Studies at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.