The War on the Humanities


If you plan to major in philosophy, the American government will stop at nothing to prevent you.
“Become an engineer.  Study science or math,” politicos of every rank and label say.  “Don’t bother with the mushy humanities.”
In almost all places, they’ll try to convince to put down Proust and pick up an engineering textbook; in some states, they’ll incentivize you monetarily.  In Florida, for instance, a government task force has unveiled a plan calling for public universities to charge more for some degrees than others.  Those majors that are in high demand among employers – computer science, finance, and IT, to name a few – will be cheaper.
Even at the federal level, the hard sciences are king.  On the cover page of the White House’s education website, an infographic boasts of the introduction of thousands of S.T.E.M. awards during the Obama administration – the S.T.E.M. acronym standing for science, technology, engineering, and math.
And within the commentariat, this anti-humanistic bent is just as fierce.  In The New Leviathan, a recent anthology of conservative writings dismissed as a “compilation of jeremiads” by liberal media, Glenn H. Reynolds’ article on higher education – which denounced government support for liberal arts degrees – was lauded as the collection’s one substantive policy piece.  Plenty of other conservative scholars, from Charles Murray to Ron Unz, dismiss the utility of higher education altogether for those destined for low-paying jobs.
In every mainstream American politics, the idea of higher education as nothing more than a vocational tool has taken root.  College, after all, is meant to prepare one for a career, and a literature degree fails catastrophically in this measure.  According to the prevailing sentiment, the government should herd those who are dabbling in the ‘soft’ intellectual subjects, to those areas of academia that will bolster American GNP.
From the viewpoint of a shortsighted economist, this command-and-control style of education is a boon.
From the viewpoint of a humanist, however, – that kind of thinker that the government is trying to purge – this vocational strategy is a social disaster, for it treats students not as human beings, but merely as human capital.
John Dewey, the United States’ most enduring educational scholar, saw the virtue of vocational education.  But unlike today’s policymakers, he also saw the necessity of the liberal arts. “The world in which most of us live is a world in which everyone has a calling and occupation, something to do,” he wrote in his 1900 book, The School and Society. “But the great thing … is that [through a broad curriculum] each shall have had the education which enables him to see within his daily work all there is in it of large and human significance.” A welder should be taught not just to weld, nor a tailor just to sow, nor a computer scientist just to type code.  Each should be taught to appreciate his or her profession, appreciate why it is vital to the world around them.  An education should satisfy and demystify, not just teach a single task that may be quite menial and, by itself, unsatisfactory.
Many will dismiss this educational philosophy as quixotic, and far too … liberal-artsy.
But even if one dismisses the idea of education as a tool for personal fulfillment, the government’s meddling in these academic matters is still somewhat authoritarian.
Let’s indulge in a hypothetical: Say a student from an oil-rich region is a talented writer and a lover of literature. He also is quite poor, but determined to attend college nevertheless.  He would like to study English, even though he knows that the major is not exactly a cash cow.  But because of state grant programs and anti-humanistic laws (see Florida), attaining a liberal arts degree would be prohibitively expensive. Instead, he is forced by the state to settle for a cheaper degree, say, petroleum engineering.
This is, of course, an extreme example.  Most will not be literally forced away from the humanities. But even in cases where giving up one’s humanistic passions is just an option, the government may still succeed in incentivizing the individual to abandon his or her original interests.  When this occurs, the state has taken an individual and molded him or her into the shape that – in the judgment of policymakers – most benefits the American economy.  Such a strategy reduces the individual to mere capital, a kind of playdough for the market, and morally degrades him or her to the level of a machine, nothing more. I don’t know about my peers, but I came to school to develop as an individual, not as a mere piece of economic machinery.  I am not an instrument.  What’s more, I do not aspire to see my child become an economic or military resource.
Even if you cared not about politics, even if you were an anti-individual statist who cared only for American GDP, our government’s tacit war on the humanities is no boon in the long term.  Entrepreneurialism – one of the taproots of American wealth – depends upon passion and creativity, not upon an elaborate, command-and-control system of vocational assignment.  In fact, the now common approach, whereby the government tries to adapt individuals to the economy in its present state, in some ways predisposes the American mind against the innovation that has been historically vital to our economic welfare.  That literature-loving petroleum engineer, after all, has little invested in ‘green technology,’ and would sooner defend carbon dioxide than he would Walden or Thoreau.  A residential construction major from Rick Scott’s Florida, to use another example, will likely be unimpressed by advancements in the New Urbanism, and he’d better hope that Americans never lose interest in moving to the Sunshine State.
As Dewey rested his defense of liberal arts educations, “[I do not strive to] ‘adapt’ workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that.
When I think about it analytically – using the skills I’ve picked up through my useless, humanistic education – I can’t help but agree.
Image credit: salon.com

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