The Gray Box is operated by David Voelker, Associate Professor of Humanistic Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. (More)

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The Humanities Know (Part 1)

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.[1] 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.

  1. 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.  ↩

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Reader Comments (5)

Great post, David. Without disagreeing with you, I would like to present a different perspective. When the mp3 format was first introduced, it was poor quality. It sounded bad, there weren't good players for it, and record labels scoffed at the possibility of any potential. When digital cameras were first created (by Kodak, in fact) the camera industry saw them as cumbersome and not worth pursuing. What was once "exclusively public or non-profit" (and I agree with your footnote qualifier) is now potentially being threatened by resources that are more public and more open, not "open for business," but open for intellectual freedom. Consider the OER movement, the free MOOCs that are popping up everywhere at an astounding rate, the unfortunate story of Aaron Swartz. There is a significant cultural movement that demands that content, knowledge, and learning be public, accessible, and free. The "Kahn model" does not degrade higher ed, it augments it (and it may someday threaten it as the mp3 did to traditional models of music distribution). Self-learners WILL find a variety of sources, they WILL think critically, and they WILL learn. I wish politics and ill-formed arguments for quick, cheap and easy degrees didn't get muddled into the really exciting and valuable potential of these interesting developments. Too bad people are already trying to capitalize on new models of learning before we really understand what we're dealing with; I suppose it's inevitable with anything popular. The second "O" in MOOC stands for "open."
The academic community needs to embrace openness and be involved in creating free quality learning experiences for anyone anywhere.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLeif

I think that Aaron Schwartz' story, at least the part of it that was about copyright and academic publishing, as well as the trajectory of MOOCs (which as even Friedman acknowledges are still most accessed by the upper middle class and above, globally), should demonstrate that the internet is still produced and producing the same power hierarchies outside the digital world. In fact, it may be that thinking of the internet as a "virtual" space allows us to imagine its democratic possibilities a bit too fantastically. Even mp3s, despite wide access and great quality, bring up complex issues for artists. And, I think there is a marked difference between music and learning; one is often pleasant and passively received, and the other is not always pleasant and requires attentiveness. Ultimately there is joyfulness there, but there is also a good amount of scutwork. (This probably applies also to doing politics digitally). Agreed wholeheartedly that higher education should welcome openness and in fact has a duty to educate broadly, but this doesn't happen automatically, and it isn't easy to do within a larger system that is still deeply entrenched in intellectual property rights regimes and digital divides that counter its democratic potential. (I think, Leif, you are acknowledging this same sort of problem with the lament that capitalization and monetizing seems to have come first, so we are probably not really arguing.) I suppose I am fretting about a world where the very few can actually go to Yale, Harvard or any four year university, and the rest get a lesser version and certification, reinscribing the same class divides we might want to combat. I'd add to David's excellent questions about the "higher" in higher education the question of what actual democratic production of knowledge and learning would look like, and how we could get there from here.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlison

Thanks for these comments, Leif and Alison. I think that you both make very good points. I don't have any real concerns about MOOCs themselves, as long as they really are "open." (As I tweeted yesterday, though, I do think that doing serious assessment of learning in a truly "massive" online course is probably about as challenging as "cold fusion," and we shouldn't take for granted that the solution is right around the corner. For some kinds of courses, this is not a big deal, but for many, it may be nearly insurmountable. I don't mean to say that learning can't take place without expert assessment -- far from it -- but rather that a certain layer of accountability is missing.) What really does concern me, though, is this fantasy that we will soon be able to safely slash funding for higher education now that it's possible to post good lectures (and interact via social media) on the internet. It may be that MOOCs will someday allow us to scale back on the instructor time devoted to introductory level courses (especially), but I worry that there is an impoverished sense of learning and an impoverished understanding of the public function of the university at work here. This idea is especially alarming when it seems to be coming from elected officials who style themselves as education reformers but show little understanding of what truly *higher* education looks like.

January 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterDavid Voelker

Sadly, this latest attack on the liberal arts and humanities is aimed at the fine institution where I did my doctoral work.

January 29, 2013 | Registered CommenterDavid Voelker

That was a really provocative post. I appreciate the way you tied the attack on the humanities to what I've been calling "market fundamentalism"-- the assumption that there is no value except market value. Interestingly, traditional conservatives would agree that there are values that transcend the market.

I also agree that the IT issue is largely irrelevant to the issue of the humanities. It is remarkable how easily people adapt to changes in technology. Engaged reflective thinking and learning, by contrast, must always be cultivated regardless of the level of technology.

January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoel

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