September, 2011 · By Justin Bengry
Throughout the fall term last year, every time I entered the Arts Building of my campus I had to walk over the words “McArts Degree.” In the first week of term someone had painted them in two-foot-high, whitewashed letters at the entrance to the building. They were impossible to miss. It dominated the small outdoor plaza. These words remained there, confronting me and everyone else who entered the building, until they were finally obliterated by the snow and cold.
This message affected me every day that I went to the university.
I can only imagine how this message felt to undergraduates (or even graduate students) who saw it every single day. I’ve earned a PhD, been selected for a Postdoc at a respected institution, and proven myself to my intellectual peers. And yet, I still felt that this simple insult took something away from me. But what about new students? What message might they take from this prominently placed message at their university?
This year I came back to the university after a summer away and the first thing I remember noticing was that the words were not there. In their place, using half-foot-wide masking tape, someone had marked out the words “Use a Condom.” I was thrilled. Not only were the offensive words gone, but someone had co-opted this space for a useful and important message that new undergrads away from home should hear often and loud.
Days later my optimism was undermined by a new insult. Painted in even larger blue letters, and obliterating the healthy message advocating safer sex, was another jibe at arts majors: “I have an Arts degree. Can I take your order?”
I’ve written elsewhere on the History Compass about the denigration of the humanities. It is a pervasive problem. Messages like these tell students that the arts and humanities are impractical, selfish studies without the merit of science programs and professional schools. Funding priorities that sacrifice the arts and humanities further reinforce this message (while making it more and more difficult to teach them well.) At the History Compass we’re particularly concerned about this. Jean Smith has written about the value of history specifically, while Angela Sutton has sought to debunk the myth of the humanities as a financial burden on institutions.
At their worst, these messages of denigration and attacks on funding are mutually reinforcing. In a culture that dismisses and denigrates the arts and humanities, it is hardly surprising that those with the authority to do so remove their funding and deprioritize them further. In the UK, Middlesex University closed its History and then its Philosophy Department. The Conservative government has advocated removing state funding entirely. In the US, SUNY Albany cut language and theatre programs. And in Canada, the $200 million Canada Excellence Research Chairs initiative included no scholars in the Arts and Social Sciences. Not one. Bombarded with messages such as these, it’s hard enough to contemplate study in the humanities. It’s even more difficult when your own studies are dismissed as merely a “McArts Degree.”
What can we do?
Happily, the best course of action is to prove these accusations wrong. Our many successes are our best response. They are examples of the value in the arts and humanities. But we must also confront these attacks. I hope to be able to write an update to this blog soon, where I can congratulate my university for recognizing the harm of this kind of message and removing it.
This blog was originally published on History Compass Exchanges on
15 September 2011.