Marvin Center, George Washington University
March 18, 2013
Good morning. I’m delighted to be here today, and eager to talk about a set of paradoxes.
We live in an age of extraordinary advancement in nearly every form of knowledge. And yet there is rising doubt about the value of a university education, and whether its benefits outweigh its costs.
We have far and away the greatest system of public education in the world, and yet here in the United States, the academy is often viewed as an ivory tower, cut off from the American people.
Americans feel a strong imperative to innovate and to compete against the world’s rising powers, but we do not always invest as fully as we might in the greatest source of innovation we have – our young people.
In this time of fits and starts and unsettled feelings about higher education, the humanities have been especially vulnerable to partisan warfare.
Unlike the STEM disciplines, they do not on the surface contribute to the national defense. It is difficult to measure, precisely, their effect on the GDP, or our employment rates, or the stock market.
And yet all of us in this room know in our bones that our secular humanism is one of the greatest sources of strength we possess as a nation, and that we must protect the humanities if we are to retain that strength in the century ahead.
Today, I’d like to talk about ways we might better make that case. I’m pleased to see so many defenders from the front lines, humanities advocates from state humanities councils, museums, universities, grant writers, grant givers, representatives of the NEH and NEA.
I’m all the more flattered to be here, since I do not exactly hail from the center of the humanities. I’m an economist, with a specialization in health and economic development. But we economists have our value, and when you invite us to speak, the chances are good that we will ultimately get around to a basic question … “is it worth it?”
Today I want to answer that question in the affirmative: Support for the humanities is more than worth it. It is essential.
We all know that there has been a fair amount of hostility to this idea recently in Congress and in State Houses around the country. Sometimes it almost feels as if there is a National Alliance against the Humanities. There are frequent potshots by right-wing radio commentators. There are entire lobbies devoted to reducing government spending, particularly in education and environmental stewardship, and in that light, humanities spending often looks vulnerable.
Even academics who might be inclined to be sympathetic are piling on. The great Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson just wrote an op-ed in the New York Times (2/24) that began, “the task of understanding humanity is too important and too daunting to leave to the humanities.”
It is a curiosity of our recent history that a party that once championed education is now generally hostile to the academic world, and vice versa. That is regrettable for many reasons – we don’t want hegemonic thinking inside the academy, looking out, or outside the academy, looking in. Republicans should be proud of the Morrill Act of 1862, which expanded our peerless system of public universities, and the fact that a former Republican, Earl Warren, presided over the desegregation of our schools.
But it has become fashionable to attack government for being out of touch, bloated and elitist. Humanities funding often strikes critics as an especially muddle-headed form of government spending, which is not made more palatable by the fact that an education in the humanities so often turns out to be an education into liberalism.
For that reason, the humanities are in danger of becoming something of a piñata.
If you happen to be the governor of a large Southern state – say, North Carolina or Florida or Texas – then questioning the humanities, or college in general, can make for an easy and effective form of populist politics.
In the current economic environment, these attacks have the potential to sway people. We have all seen the bitter debates over the sequester and the fiscal cliff, and producing spending bills does not seem to be getting easier. Any expenditure has to be clearly worth it. And so we are hearing about “performance funding” – linking government support to disciplines that provide high numbers of jobs, or in Florida, a “strategic” tuition structure that essentially charges more money to students who want to study the humanities and less money for those going into the STEM disciplines.
As a result, there is grave cause for concern. And the evidence tells us that federal support for the humanities is heading in the wrong direction. In fiscal year 2012, the National Endowment for the Humanities was funded at $146 million, down $21 million from FY 2010, at a time when science funding stayed intact. That is part of a pattern of long-term decline since the Reagan years.
So what can we do to make the case for the humanities?
I’d like to begin today by saying that, despite the occasional bitterness of partisan politics, I believe the question is fair. Are the humanities worth it? We should accept this challenge with good cheer, and set about investigating the hard facts of the question. Why is it that a humanities degree continues to offer value? How will its value manifest itself in the rapidly changing landscape of the new century?
We need to engage this conversation, using all of the humanistic tools at our disposal.
We meet in a time of very rapid change in the educational world. It is not just the humanities that are under scrutiny – the very enterprise of education is as well. There are those who question the value of a degree at all. There are many who question the high financial cost of a four-year education.
Then there are those who are challenging the idea of college in other ways. We are seeing extraordinary numbers of people signing up for online lectures, which borrow from the idea of college without exactly duplicating it. It is certainly not “college” in the original sense of collegiality, living together. But it is definitely education, and accessible, and in its way a harbinger of the tech future we are all heading toward, whether we are ready or not.
But that does not mean we cannot take our values with us into that future. And over many centuries, we have learned well what these values are and how profoundly they are linked to the humanities. They stem from the humanities, and they are sustained by the humanities. So long as we sustain them, they will sustain us.
At Brown, we are about to celebrate our 250th anniversary and a proud tradition of what I call constructive irreverence. That means listening to dissent, questioning authority, following one’s individual conscience, but always within a framework of respect for the community.
Brown derived some of that ethos from Rhode Island and its particularly ardent defense of religious freedom, but it has been nurtured over the years by the natural eclecticism of the students and a curriculum that encourages free choice.
It is profoundly grounded in the questioning spirit of the Enlightenment and the dissenting spirit of the nonconformist religions that brought so many families to North America earlier in our history. It is part of the DNA of who we are, encoded into the language of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights – and the lively intellectual culture that proceeds from our political freedom.
I’ve been told that Brown alumnus Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch, said that Brown offers good training for the world, because there are no rules at all; a good way to prepare for a Hobbesian world where there are also no rules.
But obviously, we do have rules, and standards. And so does the world. And one of the ways that the world has worked out its standards of civility and respect and honest discourse is through thorough grounding in the humanities.
The humanities are not a fungible part of the curriculum that we can casually separate from; they are an essential part of our intellectual pedigree. They ground us and make possible the curiosity and the civility and the enlightened skepticism that allows all knowledge to proceed. From the original seven liberal arts of the Middle Ages – grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, music – we have evolved a complex humanistic discourse that makes possible the endless enterprise of intellectual inquiry.
To push back against the recent tide of criticism, I’d like to offer several strategies.
First, we need to argue that there are real, tangible benefits to the humanistic disciplines we are talking about – to history, to literature, to art, to drama, to music, to foreign languages and area studies.
In the complex, globalized world we are moving toward, it will obviously benefit American undergraduates to know something of other civilizations, past and present. Any form of immersion in literary expression is obviously helpful when we are learning to communicate and defend our thoughts. And it should not be that difficult to find common ground in Congress that a thorough and objective grounding in history is helpful and even inspiring when applying the lessons of our past to the future.
This point came home to me when, in my previous role as Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, I went to the university archives to read the reports and correspondence that concerned the formation of the School in 1929. The founding director of the School, DeWitt Clinton Poole, wrote that the need was not for “young men minutely trained in specific technicalities” but instead, for a “broad culture that will enlarge the individual’s mental scope to world dimensions.”
Accordingly, the curriculum was designed to ground students in both the social sciences and the humanities, with attention to foreign languages, cultural knowledge, history, and political philosophy. At that time – on the eve of the Great Depression – there was concern that such an “impractical” education would be of little value. Indeed, one alumnus wrote that the curriculum “is not immediately useful to the boy who has to earn a living.” Yet, if one looks back over the course of the school’s rich history, it is evident that many of the men and women who were exposed to that curriculum went on to positions of genuine leadership in the public and private sectors.
The same is true at Brown and at any of the other great liberal arts universities that emphasize the humanities. At Brown, we celebrate our Pulitzer-Prize winning authors – Nilo Cruz, and Jeffrey Eugenides – and our activists – Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, and Ira Magaziner, now heading the Clinton Health Access Initiative. And when I ask any of our business leaders what they valued most during their years at Brown, I am just as likely to hear about an inspirational professor of classics or religion as a course in economics, science or mathematics.
We know that one of the best aspects of the undergraduate experience is the fact that it is so multifaceted. Our scientists enjoy studying alongside our humanists and vice versa. They learn more that way, and they do better on each side of that not-very-precise divide.
Second, we need to better defend an important principle that centuries of humanism have taught us – that we do not always know the future benefits of what we study and therefore should not rush to reject some forms of research as less deserving than others.
One of my favorite essays was written by Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. Titled “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” it was published in Harper’s in 1939 on the eve of World War Two, a time when we can assume there was a high priority placed on military and scientific knowledge. In that essay, Flexner argued that most of our really significant discoveries have been made by “men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.”
Flexner’s essay underscores a very important idea – that random discoveries can be more important than the ones we think we are looking for, and that we should be wary of imposing standard criteria of costs and benefits on our scholars. In other words, we should be careful not to give the economists too much power. Or perhaps I should put it more precisely. We certainly want to know that benefits will accrue from all of the research and conversations taking place on a lively college campus. But we should be prepared to accept that this value may be difficult to measure and may not be clear for decades or even centuries.
After 9/11, experts in Arabic and the history of Islam were suddenly in high demand – their years of research could not simply be invented overnight. Similarly, we know that regional leaders like Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa will rise in relevance and connectivity to the United States over the next few decades, just has China and India already have. To be ready for those relationships, and to advance them, we need our humanists fully engaged.
And third, the pace of learning is moving so quickly that I would argue it is all the more important that we maintain support for the humanities, precisely to make sure that we remain grounded in our core values.
As many previous generations have learned, innovations in science and technology are tremendously important. But they inevitably bring adjustments with them and cause unintended consequences. Some new inventions, if only available to small numbers, increase inequity or competition for scarce resources, with multiplying effects. We need humanists to help us understand and respond to the social and ethical dimensions of technological change.
Another paradox of our time is that the faster we communicate, it often seems, the worse we communicate. We need humanists for so many reasons, but one is simply to help our teenagers send more interesting messages than OMG and LOL! As more changes come, we will need humanists to help us filter them, calibrate them, and when necessary, correct them. And we need them to galvanize the changes that are yet to come.
Universities should not merely train students who can survive and prosper in the world as it is. Instead, we should educate students who will change the world for the better. Our focus should not be only on training students about the skills needed immediately upon graduation. The value of those skills will depreciate quickly. Instead, our aim is to invest in the long-term intellectual, creative, and social capacity of human beings.
The good news is that universities are not going anywhere. Despite the occasional criticism, they will be here for a long time, and the humanities with them. Universities are not nearly as impractical or extravagant as their critics sometimes intimate.
A college degree remains an extremely good investment. The economic return to a year of college education is about 10 percent and if anything has increased in recent years. Yes, humanities majors tend to earn less, on average, than their counterparts in the sciences and engineering. However, these differences may be less than people think.
Data from the Census Bureau indicates that adults who received a bachelor’s degree in science and engineering-related fields and who do not go on to an advanced degree can expect to earn $2.6 million over the course of their careers, in contrast to $2.1 million for those with degrees in literature and languages. That’s only about $11,000 per year over a lifetime of work. And those with degrees in literature and languages are more likely to continue to advanced degrees, which result in higher earnings levels.
I suspect the humanities will hold their own in our increasingly technological age. Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography of Steve Jobs argued that Jobs loved to position himself at exactly the intersection of technology and art – no one would have mistaken him for a computer programmer, or an engineer, or a graphic designer, but somehow he combined all of these and more to revolutionize one industry after another. I believe that the ability to creatively integrate knowledge from a range of disciplines will become increasingly valuable in the years to come.
I started by saying that we should embrace the debate about the value of the humanities. Let’s hear the criticisms that are often leveled, and do what we can to address them. Let’s make sure we give value to our students, and that we educate them for a variety of possible outcomes, including the possibility that they will not find a job in their chosen discipline. Let’s do more to encourage cross-pollination between the sciences and the humanities for the benefit of each.
Let’s educate all of our students in every discipline to use the best humanistic tools we have acquired over a millennium of university teaching – to engage in a civilized discourse about all of the great issues of our time.
The more conclusively that science proves that we are damaging our atmosphere, the less we seem to be able to talk about it. The growing sophistication of cloning techniques has brought scientists closer to the technology of life itself, but the science is advancing far faster than our vocabulary. There are hard questions coming at us all the time from all angles relating to new military weapons, cyberwarfare, surveillance and security, human rights, marriage, the economy, and justice. These are hard questions. A grounding in the humanities will sharpen our answers.
More to the point, we want a thriving, scintillating civil society in which everyone can talk to everyone. That was a quality that Alexis de Tocqueville talked about when he visited the United States at the beginning of the 1830s. Even in that primitive time, before the Internet, before the telegraph, we were engaged in an American conversation that stretched from one end of the country to another. In a similar manner, Martin Luther King Jr. sketched a “web of mutuality” in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” fifty years ago next month.
We don’t want a nation of technical experts in one subject. We want politicians who have read Shakespeare – as Lincoln did. We want bankers and lawyers who have read Homer and Dante – Dante especially, since he was an expert on the different circles of hell. We want factory owners who have read Dickens.
It is really important we get this right. For the next century will be defined not only by what we know, but by how we know. Colleges are changing, but if anything, they are more important than ever. A mountain of empirical evidence indicates a growing inequality in our society, rising to levels not seen since before the Great Depression. There is no better way to check this trend than to invest in education, the great equalizer. And there is no better way to invest in education than to invest fairly, giving attention to all disciplines and short shrift to none.
Earlier generations have weighed these questions, and answered in the affirmative. An early graduate of Brown, Horace Mann, trained in the humanities, launched our public school system. He knew that a broad, secular education, open to all, was one of the foundations of our democracy, and that is was impossible to expect meaningful citizenship without offering people the tools to inform themselves about all of the great questions of life.
Horace Mann said, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” In that spirit, let’s continue this conversation, eager to engage the critics in a spirited conversation whose very richness depends on the humanistic values we cherish.
And in conclusion: yes, it’s worth it.