Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Value of the Humanities

The Value of the Humanities
By James Grossman

"The higher education system needs to evolve with the economy. . . . People pay taxes expecting that the public good will be served to the greatest degree possible. We call that a return on investment."
—Dale A. Brill, chairman of the Florida governor's task force on higher education

A"blue-ribbon" task force has recommended to Florida Governor Rick Scott that the state's public universities adopt a "strategic" tuition structure. "Strategic" in this case does not imply the kind of thoughtful planning that considers all aspects of an institution's mission and future. These recommendations instead offer a very narrow idea of strategy, designed, in the words of the president of the state senate, "to lash higher education to the realities and opportunities of the economy."
Perhaps more a leash than a lash. And a short leash, because even in the narrowest financial sense this is short-term thinking that ties the public university system to a single aspect of what should be a broad mission.
There are two issues here: whether the state's interest in public higher education is so purely financial that "return on investment" can be measured only in dollars, cents, and employment rates; and even within this narrow (and narrow-minded) frame whether this is smart strategy indeed.
The answer is no, on both counts, and I am proud that a group of historians at the University of Florida is spearheading the opposition with an online petition challenging the recommendations.
Both issues involve the concept of value. What is the value to the people of the state of Florida not only of the very presence of public higher education institutions, but also of each individual's graduation from those institutions? What is in it for the taxpayer to pay for some part of someone else's enhanced opportunities? What is the public "return on investment" for expenditures on postsecondary education?
These are big questions. Arguably, one has only to accept their importance to recognize why this task force's recommendations are so wrong-headed. The bull's-eye on the task force's target is the humanities. Governor Scott has made this clear in other contexts ("Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don't think so," he quipped in an interview) and suggested that humanities degrees are luxuries that are not affordable in a world of fiscal stringency and global competitiveness. But these are the very issues that humanities scholars discuss. Humanists teach students to inquire about the nature of value, why it matters to consider the particular time and place in which one is attributing value, and (yes), how to identify and evaluate the different ways of measuring that value.
It seems particularly striking that the governor of the state of Florida would find it difficult to appreciate the value of education beyond the narrow (if essential) arena of job creation and training. This is a state that would benefit from informed and thoughtful conversations about the nature of democracy, the basis of participation in a democratic polity, and the history of limitations on that participation. I don't know whether the state of Florida in particular needs more anthropologists; but I stand with National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jim Leach, who has suggested that having policymakers with more knowledge about the history and culture of certain countries in the Middle East and central Asia might have saved us a few wars, billions of dollars, and a lot of lives. Policymakers who majored in those "less strategic" disciplines in college like history and anthropology.
For the moment, however, let's concede the principle of the centrality of fiscal practicality to higher education policy. I agree that college education—at least in part—ought to serve individual career interests and even the state's interest in economic development. Most college students (and their parents who often foot the bill) do not have the luxury of excluding financial considerations from their educational choices. Indeed, the AHA's "Tuning" project is in part oriented toward enhancing the ability of first-year college students and their parents to appreciate the earning potential of a history major; and toward helping potential employers comprehend the "value" that a college graduate trained in historical thinking brings to the workplace.

I am guessing, however, that neither Brill nor Scott nor the Florida task force members have the foggiest notion of what that "value" is. Nor does Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who seems to think that these are good ideas that ought to travel north. It is possible that a history major (or a major in philosophy, English, or even Governor Scott's academic bête noir, anthropology), might not prepare a student for their first job in the private sector (which is Governor Scott's terrain, and that of Brill, who directs the research and policy development arm of the Florida Chamber of Commerce). It is the second job—and the third and fourth jobs—where humanities education comes into play. Ask most CEOs of large corporations, or thoughtful recruiters. I have. They will tell you that the company can teach a well-educated graduate whatever they need to know to do various kinds of entry-level work. They are looking for applicants who want to learn and know how to learn, educated men and women who can find and filter information, make sense out of it, and communicate what they have learned. In other words, history majors are as valuable to the state of Florida as mechanical engineers. And we won't even begin to discuss how mechanical engineers can benefit from sharing dorm space with history majors (and vice versa, of course).
—James Grossman is executive director of the AHA.
The Humanities and the World
By Allen Mikaelian
My friends who are lobbyists (everyone in DC has at least a few) tell me that they have never had less influence. Not long ago, when Congress actually passed legislation, lobbyists’ seeds could find be planted, for better or worse, in the furrows opened up by compromise. But when everything seems dictated by ideology, and the ground for compromise narrows to the vanishing point, lobbyists and advocates can accomplish little.
And yet, there we were, on Humanities Advocacy Day in mid-March, paying visits to senators’ legislative aides to make the case for continued funding of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and other programs devoted to humanities research and education. This should not have been a hard case to make; the amount of money devoted to the humanities in the federal budget is miniscule, the benefits are clear, and we weren’t even asking for more money—just a vote to staunch the bleeding of the last several years.
Still, the default position on the Hill right now is to cut first and ask questions later, and only those programs with clear benefit have a chance. So what is the clear benefit of humanities programs? It is no longer feasible to rely solely on the idea of “enriching” society, or even the benefits to society of a citizenship informed by the study of humanity. (Perhaps it’s best to stay away from the word “society” altogether, at least with some congressional staffers.) Certain members of Congress have all but ruled out funding for study their own contexts through the lens of political science—see this month’s Coalition Column and the recent statement by the AHA Council for examples.
One argument for the humanities, which was offered during our preparations for the advocacy day, struck me as particularly compelling, and when I presented it during a meeting with a legislative aide, it seemed to spark something. (At least she started to write things down, and responded positively when I followed up with information relating the argument to her state.) In summary, the argument goes, we can’t have an effective workforce in the global economy without the humanities. You just can’t get to an understanding of the role of culture and history in shaping globalization through study of STEM alone.
An example at hand is the NEH’s Bridging Cultures initiative, and the program under this umbrella that has a home in the AHA (Perspectives on History, March 2013). Here, community college teachers are discovering how the United States is part of the Pacific world. The benefits to understanding this area as an interconnected region in the global era are obvious, and the fact that this understanding will be imparted to students in two-year universities, where so much job training and retraining is happening, is truly exciting.
An example in this issue of Perspectives is Hong-Ming Liang’s work on the Middle Ground Journal. Liang shows how an academic journal can do much more than publish scholarship, and that an editor is much more than a wordsmith. His journal is part of a global network of scholars, but also of teachers and students at several levels.
By bringing that network to his students and to students in other departments, the work his journal does connects those students to the world. It’s not surprising that he finds interested interns among the college’s marketing department as well as among history majors. As a defense of the humanities, the project goes beyond the well-worn and unspecific claims that the humanities deliver “enrichment” or “critical thinking.” Further, the project is encouraging because the content matters—it is no accident that a world history journal is at the center of this project.
All of this, however, puts some additional imperatives behind the issues raised by Luke Clossey and Nicholas Guyatt in this issue. If the wider world is truly in “historians’ peripheral vision,” as they suggest, the consequences are profound and the opportunities that could be missed are immense. The discipline has an interest in keeping itself diverse for more than the sake of diversity alone. Without a greater balance between the amount of research devoted to a region and its global relevance, the discipline as a whole becomes much easier to dismiss.
Other disciplines have significant external pressures to maintain a global vision: The scientific community has global interests, scope, and networks. Economic imperatives push engineering toward greater global activity, if not global awareness.
Historians, on the other hand, will have to further global awareness in the discipline by themselves. Their job will be made easier by the fact that the discipline is naturally curious and open, but resources for the infrastructures, additional training, and travel needed to even out some of the disparities Clossey and Guyatt point to will be hard to come by.
Such help won’t, we can be sure, be arriving from Congress any time soon.

—Allen Mikaelian is the editor of Perspectives on History.
© American Historical Association

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