Easy Chair — From the October 2013 issue

Course Corrections

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To the long list of American institutions that have withered since the dawn of the 1980s — journalism, organized labor, mainline Protestantism, small-town merchants — it may be time to add another: college-level humanities. Those ancient pillars of civilization are under assault these days, with bulldozers advancing from two different directions.

On the one hand, students are migrating away from traditional college subjects like history and philosophy. After hitting a postwar high in the mid-1960s, enrollments in the humanities dropped off sharply, and still show no signs of recovering. This is supposedly happening because recent college grads who chose to major in old-school subjects have experienced more difficulty finding jobs. Indeed, the folly of studying, say, English Lit has become something of an Internet cliché — the stuff of sneering “Worst Majors” listicles that seem always to be sponsored by personal-finance websites.

On the other hand, an impressive array of public figures are eager to give the exodus from the humanities an additional push. Everyone from President Obama to Thomas Friedman knows where public support for education has to be concentrated in order to yield tangible returns both for individuals and for the nation: the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math). These are the degrees American business is screaming for. These are the fields of study that will give us “broadly shared economic prosperity, international competitiveness, a strong national defense, a clean energy future, and longer, healthier, lives for all Americans,” as a White House press release puts it.

Where does that leave the humanities, which don’t contribute in any obvious way to national defense or economic prosperity? The management theorist and financier Peter Cohan, addressing unemployment among recent college grads in the pages of Forbes, proposes a course of straightforward erasure: “To fix this problem, the answer is simple enough: cut out the departments offering majors that make students unemployable.” Certain red-state governors seem eager to take up the task. Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina, for example, dismisses gender studies as elitist woolgathering and announces, “I’m going to adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs.” Governor Rick Scott of Florida declares that “we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state,” while a panel he convened in 2012 has called for tuition prices to be subsidized for those willing to acquiesce to the needs of business and study practical things. Those who want to study silly stuff like divinity or Latin will have to pay ever more to indulge in their profligate pastimes.

And so the old battle is joined again: the liberal arts versus professional (i.e., remunerative) studies. This time around, of course, it is flavored by all the cynical stratagems of contemporary politics. Take the baseline matter of STEM workers, the ones who supposedly hold our future in their hands. According to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, there is actually no shortage of STEM workers in the United States — and by extension, no need for all the incentives currently on the table to push more students into those fields. Oh, the demand of the business community for an ever greater supply of STEM grads is genuine enough. But their motive is the same as it was when they lobbied for looser restrictions on STEM workers from abroad: to keep wages down. Only this time the high-handed endeavor is being presented as a favor to students, who must be rescued from a lifetime of philology-induced uselessness.

A similar logic explains the larger attack on the humanities. The disciplines in the crosshairs have been the right’s nemeses for many years. Maybe, in the past, conservatives stumped for some idealized core curriculum or the Great Books of Western Civ — but now that the option of demolishing these disciplines is on the table, today’s amped-up right rather likes the idea. After all, universities are not only dens of liberal iniquity but also major donors to the Democratic Party.[1] Chucking a few sticks of dynamite into their comfy world is a no-brainer for any politician determined to “defund the left.”

[1] According to statistics compiled by Neil Gross in Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, the most left-leaning divisions of the American university are the social sciences, closely followed by the humanities.

Fans of the banality of evil might apciate the language with which this colossal act of vandalism is being urged upon us. Florida’s blue-ribbon commission, for example, sets about burying the humanities with a sandstorm of convoluted management talk:

Four key policy questions must be addressed to accelerate Florida’s progression toward world-class recognition as a system, particularly as its measurement framework transitions from simply reporting to collaborating toward clear goals. . . . Boards can advance effective cost management by helping to shape the conversation about aligning resources with goals and creating a culture of heightened sensitivity to resource management across the campus.

Let us assess the battle so far. In one corner, we have rhetoric like this: empty, pseudoscientific jargon rubber-stamped by a Chamber of Commerce hack . . . who was appointed by the governor of Florida . . . who was himself elected by the Tea Party. It is not merely weak, it is preposterous; it is fatuity at a gallop.

In the other corner, we have the university-level humanities. Now, here is an antagonist at the height of its vast mental powers. In polite and affluent circles, it is respected by all. Its distinctive, plummy tone seems daily to extend itself into more and more aspects of American life. The Opinion section of the Sunday New York Times, for example, is one long succession of professorial musings. So is much of NPR’s programming. Former humanities students occupy many of the seats in President Obama’s Cabinet.

That the exalted men and women of higher learning might take the field against opponents like the authors of the Florida report and be defeated — it’s almost impossible to believe. And yet that’s precisely what is happening.

Stung by the attacks on their livelihood, the nation’s leading humanists have closed ranks, taken up their pencils, and tried to explain why they exist. The result is a train wreck of desperate rationalizations, clichés, and circular reasoning.

They insist that their work must not be judged by bogus metrics like the employability of recent graduates. They scold journalists for getting the story wrong in certain of its details. They express contempt for the dunces in state legislatures. They tear into the elected philistines who badger them with what the academic superstar Homi Bhabha calls a “primitive and reductive view of what is essential.”

And with touching earnestness, they argue that the humanities are plenty remunerative. They tell of CEOs who demand well-rounded young employees rather than single-minded, vocationally focused drudges. They remind us that humanities grads get into law and medical schools, which in turn lead (as everyone knows, right?) to the big money. Besides, they point out, the humanist promise of explaining our mysterious country draws foreign students — and foreign currency — to college towns across the land. They even play the trump card of national security: wouldn’t we have done better in the global “war on terror” if we had trained more Arabic linguists prior to the start of hostilities?

[2] The very same month that the Academy issued this report, its president was found not to have earned the Ph.D. ascribed to her on the organization’s website.

Their mission, after all, is not about money: it is about molding young citizens for democracy! In making this traditional argument, no one today will venture quite as far as Bruce Cole, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who in 2004 claimed that the humanities were “part of our homeland defense.” But we’re getting pretty close. Consider the report issued a few months ago by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, which asserts that our political system itself “depends on citizens who can think critically, understand their own history, and give voice to their beliefs while respecting the views of others.” As proof, the authors of the report cite Thomas Jefferson’s fondness for liberal education, and then proceed to trumpet the humanities as nothing less than “the keeper of the republic” — a phrase that is doubtless meant to out-patriot the various conservatives nipping at the academy’s ankles.[2]

Others want nothing to do with such hackneyed arguments. Harvard University’s effort to explain the high station of the humanities, a dense and confusing text issued in June, insists that these disciplines are designed in part to “unmask the operations of power,” not to buttress them. The document then disavows Harvard’s previous justification for the humanities, which had stressed the “civic responsibilities of American citizens living in and aspiring to preserve a free democratic society.” No, that was last century’s model — jingoistic junk. In 2013, the humanities are all about embracing ambiguity. And about determining exactly what the humanities are about. The humanists write:

At the same time, therefore, that we aspire to ground our sense of ourselves on some stable understanding of the aim of life (e.g., the responsible citizen in a free society), we must constantly aspire to discover anew what the best way to characterize and cultivate such an aim might be. The humanities are the site where this tension is cultivated, nurtured, and sustained.[3]

[3] This deeply unpersuasive idea — that the humanities exist to teach us how to ponder the humanities — is so seductive to the authors that they repeat it, in slightly different form, a few pages later: “An understanding of the power of the humanistic enterprise, therefore, and an understanding of how responsibly to engage it and employ it, should be the central aims of any education in the humanities.”

The nurturing and sustaining of tensions — that’s the stuff. Of course, some tensions are more desirable than others, and for all their excitement about the unmasking of power, the Harvard humanists have little interest in unmasking their own. Nor should their genuflection at the altar of ambiguity be taken as a call to knock down the disciplinary walls. No, according to Bhabha’s navel-gazing appendix, even students interested in interdisciplinary studies will be D.O.A. unless they first encounter “disciplinary specificity in its most robust expression.” Ambiguity is a stern taskmaster, I guess.

Most touching, perhaps, is the argument advanced by Stanley Fish in a 2010 New York Times Opinionator column. After shooting down the many absurd defenses of the humanities that are floating around these days, Fish advises inhabitants of academia’s more rarefied regions to forget even trying to explain themselves to the public. Don’t ask what “French theory” does for the man in the street, Fish writes. Instead, ask whether its

insights and style of analysis can be applied to the history of science, to the puzzles of theoretical physics, to psychology’s analysis of the human subject. In short, justify yourselves to your colleagues, not to the hundreds of millions of Americans who know nothing of what you do and couldn’t care less and shouldn’t be expected to care.

Once, academics like Fish dreamed of bringing young people to a full understanding of their humanity, and maybe even of changing the world. Now their chant is: We’re experts because other experts say we’re experts. We critique because we critique because we critique — but all critique stops at the door to the faculty lounge.

One thing the humanities warriors don’t talk about very much is the cost of it all. In the first chapter of Martha Nussbaum’s otherwise excellent Not for Profit, the author declares that while the question of “access” to higher ed is an important one, “it is not, however, the topic of this book.”

Maybe it should have been. To discuss the many benefits of studying the humanities absent the economic context in which the humanities are studied is to miss the point entirely. When Americans express doubts about whether (in the words of Obama pollster Joel Benenson) “a college education was worth it,” they aren’t making a judgment about the study of history or literature that needs to be refuted. They are remarking on its price.

Tellingly, not a single one of the defenses of the humanities that I read claimed that such a course of study was a good deal for the money. The Harvard report, amid its comforting riffs about ambiguity, suggests that bemoaning the price is a “philistine objection” not really worth addressing. (It also dismisses questions of social class with a footnote.) The document produced by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences contains numerous action points for sympathetic legislators, but devotes just two paragraphs to the subject of student debt and tuition inflation, declaring blandly that “colleges must do their part to control costs,” then suggesting that the real way to deal with the problem is to do a better job selling the humanities.

But ignoring basic economics doesn’t make them go away. It is supposed to be a disaster when right-wingers in state legislatures threaten to destroy academic professions. However, one reason the world has so little sympathy for those professions is that everyone knows how they themselves cranked out Ph.D.’s for decades without considering whether there was a demand for said Ph.D.’s, thereby transforming their own dedicated disciples into the most piteous wretches on campus.

Still, the wretchedness they ought to be considering is of a different magnitude altogether. The central economic fact of American higher ed today is this: It costs a lot. It costs a huge amount. It costs so much, in fact — more than $60,000 a year for tuition plus expenses at a growing number of top private schools — that young people routinely start their postcollegiate lives with enormous debt loads. It’s like forcing them to take out a mortgage when they turn twenty-two, only with no white picket fence to show for it.

This is the woolly mammoth in the room. I know the story of how it got there is a complicated one. But regardless of how it happened, that staggering price tag has changed the way we make educational decisions. Quite naturally, parents and students alike have come to expect some kind of direct, career-prep transaction. They’re out $240,000, for Christ’s sake — you can’t tell them it was all about embracing ambiguity. For that kind of investment, the gates to a middle-class life had better swing wide!

No quantity of philistine-damning potshots or remarks from liberal-minded CEOs will banish this problem. Humanists couldn’t stop the onslaught even if they went positively retro and claimed they were needed to ponder the mind of God and save people’s souls. The turn to STEM is motivated by something else, something even more desperate and more essential than that.

What is required is not better salesmanship or reassuring platitudes. The world doesn’t need another self-hypnotizing report on why universities exist. What it needs is for universities to stop ruining the lives of their students. Don’t propagandize for your institutions, professors: Change them. Grab the levers of power and pull.

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  • Andrew Betterton

    While I follow Thomas Frank with interest, he sometimes displays an unfortunate
    tendency to shoot Stanley Fish in a barrel (please forgive me, I couldn’t
    resist). Bhabha, Nussbaum, and Fish are merely liberals, and can hardly be
    expected to articulate a more compelling vision of the public good than that
    offered by Rick Scott when the entire Democratic Party has failed to do that
    for decades. Higher education is an exercise in human freedom, the humanities
    particularly so precisely because they are least amenable to the needs of
    business and commerce. And in order to ensure that people not commit
    themselves to values beyond those of business and commerce, all experiences of
    freedom in our society must be rationed. One can’t expect such an
    admission from academia’s tenured haves; it would be too close to a call for revolt
    and doesn’t accord with warm sudsy talk of making students into democratic
    citizens. If Frank were, however, to expand his survey to the vast prole army
    of non-tenured lecturers, I think he would find livelier defenses of the
    humanities.

    Although I work outside academia, let me offer mine: the humanities (and
    let’s say that includes the social sciences) offer some means for situating
    ourselves historically and comprehending the coming century of crises. Case in
    point: students graduating from publicly funded universities in Florida
    today will live to see most of that state rendered uninhabitable by rising sea
    levels. Superficially, this fact constitutes an engineering challenge. Really
    of course it is a problem of politics and of ethics; it poses a challenge to
    our capacity to think historically; it demands that we formulate a project of
    human freedom that can supersedes the current commitment to consumer
    choice.

    As for anthropology . . . did Rick Scott pick on anthropologists because he somehow dimly perceived that he would someday be studied as a perplexing exemplar of a dead civilization, the Emperor Montezuma of American Atlantis? In the Aztecs we find a pathos-laden story of an entire society struggling to comprehend its place in history. When Montezuma II became ruler of Tenochtitlan
    and emperor of the Aztecs and their subject peoples in 1502, the ships bearing
    smallpox, guns, and the cross were in historical terms already on the horizon.
    Of course, to the Aztecs their power seemed unassailable, not least in the
    expanded practice of human sacrifice, which harnessed the need to appease the gods to the exercise of political power. In the Conquest, the gods, metaphors of
    power that had underwritten real power, would be revealed as powerless, and
    their priests would be wiped away. Who can doubt that the men and women who
    flocked to the banner of Rick Scott will someday be obliged by an implacable
    reality to recognize that the spirits animating the economic universe have
    likewise fled. As Miami sinks beneath the waves, the final invocations of the god Free Market will echo off canyon walls formed by empty condos.

    Coincidentally (or not), Florida’s best known anthropologist was Marvin Harris, who retired from the University of Florida in 2000 and is remembered for a controversial argument that Aztec human sacrifice was an excuse for cannibalism motivated by a scarcity of protein due to resource depletion. A contrary argument was made by Georges Bataille who believed that Aztec sacrifice was a means of disposing of a terrible excess of life which would otherwise destroy society. Don’t these two alternative explanations taken together capture the mystery of our time: scarcity combined with a total inability to manage abundance. Keynesian economics partially addressed this problem, and in the necessity to gin up demand to meet supply we have an answer to Frank’s question as to why education should cost so much—namely, education is supposed to soak up a lot of money. From the point of view of the system, a $240,000 tuition price tag, like a billion dollars for a stealth bomber, isn’t shocking; it sounds about right. Education is one of the few growth industries left in this country; university systems are major employers; and 4-8 years in college provides students with a lower-middle class lifestyle while keeping them out of a job market that can’t possibly absorb them. It’s not sustainable, but nothing about our society is.

    • sjump

      The only problem I have with this essay (and believe me I looked for one) is that the reader can too easily lose track of the main point. But even if there were no main point (I thought I spotted it once or twice) this was still fascinating reading.

  • Niall

    What strikes me about Frank’s analysis is the systematic conflation of the humanities with academia. Of course, the association between the two is ancient and obvious, but there has been a change in the relationship between the two that took place during the massive expansion of academia in the US in the 60s, and its consequent absorption of most of American intellectual life into its orbit. One result of this change was, of course, the disappearance of non-academic public intellectuals. But perhaps a more important change was that the purpose of getting a degree in the humanities was to…become an academic. One doesn’t get a degree in English to do something out in the world, but rather to become an English professor oneself. Ditto for history, for philosophy, etc. The purpose of the humanities became the self-replication of those who taught them within academia.

    This phenomenon has exacerbated the question of the ROI of a humanities education. Or rather, the gradual contraction of academia, and the vast reduction in traditional tenured faculty positions, since the 1980s has broken the humanities/academia replication model described above, marooning all those English majors behind the counters of Starbucks or the Apple store.

    This problem is not helped by the widespread self-limiting of humanities majors to what they believe to be the only careers they are prepared for. If not being a professor, then working in a book store, or editing a magazine. When I left graduate school in 1983 with the most useless degree imaginable (M.A. in Ancient Near Eastern Literature and Languages), I noticed my fellow graduates all engaged in this self-limiting behavior, trying to find jobs as close to the periphery of academia as possible or, if that failed, waiting tables. I took a different approach and threw myself into the business world. I have since had a long and lucrative career in the one field I supposedly had the smallest chance in – high tech.

    It was funny that, once I started working in high tech, I found I succeeded precisely because of my humanities education, not in spite of it. Because technology involves having to cope with problems of hyper-complexity. Dealing with that kind of problem is much more like trying to understand the meaning of a novel than it is like solving an equation. It was also an advantage to have the communication skills necessary for my education in an industry full of people famously lacking in them.

    So perhaps it would help refocus the discussion if we, if only as a thought experiment, separated the value of the humanities from the likelihood of getting a tenured position in academia.

  • Niall

    Also, Frank’s condemnation of Fish, and his view that Fish’s rationale represents some new and novel deviation from traditional justifications for the humanities, is simply wrong. There is nothing original in Fish’s mandarin justification for the humanities whatsoever. He is simply repeating the argument Milton Babbitt, the avant garde composer, made in his famous (?) essay on modern music, “Who Cares if you LIsten?”, which was published way back in the 1950s. Check it out. Doesn’t make Fish, or Babbitt right necessarily, but Fish is hardly innovating here.

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