There’s been a lot of gloom and doom about the death of humanities in colleges over the last couple of years. Obviously, Stony Brook is no exception to the trend, but things are about to get a lot worse in the history department.
History professors Gary Marker, Michael Barnhart and Iona Man-Cheong, experts in Russia, the World Wars and China respectively, are all retiring next year. Marker himself confirmed he and his colleagues are the first of an estimated eight professors expected to retire from the department over the next two to three years. With a school-wide hiring freeze still in place, there are currently no replacements in sight.
I graduate in the fall as a history major. I’m not going to be affected by this problem, but this loss hurts every history major’s chance to learn from knowledgeable scholars.
The history department is already lacking in qualified professors. It’s so egregious that the department sent an email out before the beginning of the spring semester telling students there aren’t enough classes to satisfy the major’s European concentration. All those affected were encouraged to study under a different concentration to graduate on time because this problem is not going to be remedied soon.
I have studied under Marker, Barnhart and Man-Cheong and the knowledge I’ve gained from each of them is invaluable. The study of history has always had an information problem: there’s too much of it. It’s a privilege to have teachers who are experts in their field but can also break down all that information so it’s easily digestible. A good professor is a good filter against biased or poorly constructed historical arguments; Marker, Barnhart and Man-Cheong have been those filters for me.
It’s not just history majors who get hurt by the department’s struggles, it’s every undergrad who has a desire to learn more about the past. A passion for history exists across multiple disciplines, and I don’t see why any undergrads should be denied the same opportunities I had to learn about the stories behind the world we live in.
If history has taught me anything, it’s that long-term thinkers tend to solve problems before they ever begin. I know Stony Brook places a lot of emphasis on its science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs, but it’s also a state school and one of the most affordable in New York. Students in every discipline deserve the chance to learn and succeed without spending decades trying to pay off debt. Weakened humanities departments at state schools like Stony Brook help push more and more people without the financial means away from studying their passions.
The prevailing argument is that history and humanities do not build “useful” skill sets, nor set students up for future success. But when it comes to long-term success and earnings, humanities degrees are just as competitive as STEM degrees, it’s just a slower burn. A history degree like the one I’m pursuing gives me opportunities in teaching, government, public policy, urban planning and law; the list goes on.
A weaker history department affects the whole school. We have 26,254 students enrolled here, but just 237 major in history as of fall 2018. That’s about $1.6 million worth of tuition if we assume for a moment they’re all in-state students. Cut the department, and you’ll undoubtedly fail to draw as many new students into the major.
Besides money, you’re losing people. How is a less diverse campus a benefit? We’re all better people for the environment we’ve surrounded ourselves with and the different people we’ve had the privilege to interact with. I’ve grown and changed in ways I never could have pictured since I came to Stony Brook. If all that’s left of the university are STEM and business majors, we’ll lose a bit of our soul in the process.