About Vermont Humanities

Our Complex Humanity

Editorial by Christopher Kaufman-Ilstrup, Executive Director

Montpelier VT—At Vermont Humanities, we tell stories to help Vermonters grapple with complexity and contradiction.

The reality is that no story is simple. As Walt Whitman writes in Song of Myself, 51: 

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) 

Our staff and board have had many complex conversations since the December announcement that the University of Vermont plans to eliminate 23 programs in the coming years, most in humanities disciplines, including Classics, Religion, Greek, Latin, Asian Studies, Vermont Studies, and Historic Preservation.  

Under any circumstance, the elimination of humanities courses at our state’s land grant university is a tragic decision for both the university and its students, and for the world that the students will live in after graduation. But it is also a complex story, with multiple vectors and causes that are not easily explained by drawing traditional battle lines between administration and faculty, with students stuck in the middle. 

The complexity goes back decades and spreads well beyond UVM. While UVM talks about eliminating liberal arts majors, the Vermont State College system is in danger of losing entire campuses. These schools, located in economically marginalized regions like Rutland, Orange, Caledonia, and Lamoille Counties, have long been a source of pride, jobs, and opportunity for Vermonters who may have few other options for higher education.  

These campuses have also made access to the arts and humanities a priority. NVU – Johnson hosts the eminent Green Mountain Review literary magazine, and NVU – Lyndon’s partnership with Kingdom County Productions brings worldclass cultural offerings to the people of the Northeast Kingdom.   

Both UVM and the Vermont State Colleges are under enormous pressure after decades of systemic under-investment by the State of Vermont. The resulting overreliance on tuition is unsustainable for today’s families and for many independent adult students. The state’s contribution to our flagship university and our state college system has remained stagnant for well over a decade. With each year the schools increase their reliance on tuition or on external corporate funders who drive research priorities away from the humanities. 

In today’s world, it is simply unacceptable to say that the study of world religions, or Asian culture, or Vermont communities, is economically unviable and therefore should not be represented in our scholarly communities. If the insurrection of January 6 has taught us anything, it should be that we must think differently to build a healthy society. Graduates of our Vermont State Colleges and University who have studied the humanities bring knowledge of history, diverse cultures, and humane values to all sectors of our economy and civic life – including health care, manufacturing, engineering, agriculture, and tourism.   

While the governor often talks about the importance of a cradle to career education system, reinventing the funding model for higher education is rarely thoughtfully represented in the conversation. It is far too simple to suggest that majors in classics or religion are limited to a narrow range of jobs, or that engineering programs guarantee a prosperous workforce. Rather, Vermonters need to have a complex conversation about how to invest in higher education, and how to ensure that the critical thinking and civic engagement skills learned in the humanities disciplines continue to support our families and communities for decades to come. 

There are many contradictions in the story of higher education funding in Vermont, but we need to acknowledge them now before the simple story takes over to the detriment of all of us. As Whitman wrote, we contain multitudes. Let’s acknowledge that complexity and that humanity as we plan for our future. 

About Vermont Humanities

A statewide nonprofit organization founded in 1974, Vermont Humanities seeks to engage all Vermonters in the world of ideas, foster a culture of thoughtfulness, and inspire a lifelong love of reading and learning. Learn more at www.vermonthumanities.org