This post is the first installment in a series titled “The Humanities Know.”
There has been a lot of discussion lately of the need for the humanities to teach “21st-century skills” – especially focused on the idea that humanities programs could do a much better job of preparing students to make their way in the contemporary economy, where knowledge of history, literature, culture, and language is more often applied and expressed through the use of digital technologies than via a conventional “paper.” Fair enough. This conversation is a welcome improvement over the parallel discussion that suggests the humanities should be “cut out,” because of they are “non-strategic.” Although I support the “digital humanities,” I would like to defend the value of the humanities above and beyond their potential affiliation with new technologies. More generally, I would like to point out that the current convergence of conservatives’ desire to cut education funding with technologists’ fantasies regarding online education pose a serious threat to higher education, especially to higher education that includes the humanities.
I am taking up a position against the materialists who believe that anything without an obvious, short-term cash value is in fact valueless. People of this sort seem increasingly to populate our elected assemblies. They often come out of the business world and pride themselves on their practicality. Their hostility toward public higher education seems to derive only in part from the expense. Although the “liberal” in “liberal education” does not mean politically liberal, the materialists understand correctly that liberal education – which includes the study of the arts and humanities alongside the social and natural sciences – poses a threat to the ideological position that “the market” should be the sole and ultimate arbiter of value.
Many, perhaps most Americans recognize the limitations of this materialistic thinking, which presses technocratic means into the service of a business oligarchy. I do not mean to dismiss the usefulness of technical expertise in business and government, which historically was a progressive development in some contexts. But it seems often to be the case that the proponents of technical values (efficiency, profitability, development) lose track of the larger purpose of their endeavors. I think that there are a couple of explanations for this problem. First, there is a tendency to deal mainly in quantitative measures of efficacy, which are necessary and useful but necessarily strip away context and oversimplify. Second, there is over-confidence in technical solutions to both human and natural problems. By a technical solution I mean a solution that consists of a discrete intervention into an economy, a society, or a natural environment, often aimed more at addressing a symptom than an underlying problem. I don’t mean to thumb my nose at technical solutions, which could include anything from offering a new tax deduction to deploying a vaccine. We need technical solutions. But we also need a public that is capable of establishing a framework of values within which to identify and address problems.
A problem is only a problem within a particular context. A solution is only a solution within a particular context. Some branches of natural and social science are more context-aware than others, but it’s the humanities and arts that are hyper-alert to context. If our society is going to have a fighting chance of wrestling effectively with the wide range of problems that we currently face, we need a wide variety of perspectives on how the problems are defined and approached. We need not simply technical descriptions of the problems but humane understandings of how the problems emerged out of a particular context, and a creative envisioning of how we might find a way of addressing (if not solving) problems.
The particular sect of the business-political class that worries me has shed context. It has donned the cloak of thrift and practicality (usually using key phrases such as “tax cuts” and “job creation,” which are magically synonymous) with plans to establish a minimal society – a society where everyone looks after themselves while ignoring all of the ways that we depend on one another for our prosperity, success, health, and happiness. This iron law of interdependence applies as much (perhaps even more) to the wealthiest among us as it does to the most humble members of our society. In trying to reform society along minimalist terms, the materialists (despite their frequent use of the rhetoric of patriotism) have been striking out against those who disagree with them, whether in government, labor unions, education, or elsewhere. They champion a reductive point of view. Education is reduced to a narrow economic utility. Insofar as public education is tolerated, it is required to serve a narrowly economic purpose. Higher education is particularly vulnerable under this regime. Higher education at its best supports critical thinking, diverse perspectives, and patient inquiry. None of these values are short-term profit centers.
In fact, there is something inherently inefficient about higher education. Insofar as higher education is democratic, it is also inefficient. The American system of higher education, storm-beaten as it is, is still probably the best in world. It is based upon the assumption that it is simply not adequate to have a few brilliant minds at a few well-funded private institutions charged with defining and distributing knowledge. One of the frightening prospects of massive online courses (combined with a business model for education more generally) is that a few good lecturers could be given exactly this charge. Proponents of efficiency will ask: why not “bottle” the great lectures of this or that professor, have students watch and listen and take online objective exams, and call it higher education? (Indeed, they are already celebrating this model.) While this approach may work for some some courses, it is hardly a platform for higher education.
This model typifies the technocratic thinking that I critiqued above. The “problem” is that higher education (and education more generally) is too expensive. The “solution” is to use technology to make education more efficient and cost-effective. Meanwhile, who can complain if a system that was once exclusively public or non-profit is now “open for business”?
I would like to suggest some questions that I think we should ask in response to this trajectory on which we are headed: What would we be giving up here? Would we still have something worthy of being called higher education?
There is a reason that higher education has not made major “productivity” gains over the past several decades. (The reason is not lazy professors. One does not earn a Ph.D., much less find a job and get tenure, without working very hard.) The reason is that both teaching and learning are time- and labor-intensive endeavors. Although I think we should celebrate the new connectivity afforded by computer technology, there is little evidence that computers can reduce this time and labor. In many cases, the opportunities afforded by technology ramp up the required labor.
I am not defending the status quo ante-recession of higher education. Nor am I attacking the use of technology in higher education. (I am much closer to being a technophile than a technophobe.) I think that our colleges and universities can, must, and will do a better job of educating students. But we are not going to do this by stripping public universities of full-time faculty and replacing them with internet connections and a few super lecturers.
Public higher education is not nearly so “public” as it used to be. For example, according to recent estimates, the state of Wisconsin pays only about one out of every five dollars needed to fund my institution. ↩