The Value of the Humanities
James Grossman, January 2013
"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.