Easy Chair — From the October 2013 issue

Course Corrections

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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.

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