The Zero-Sum Rhetoric of Higher Ed Reform

James Grossman, March 2014

Photo by Frank CardimenPresident Obama ignited a small firestorm in certain quarters last month when he told an audience that “folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” The issue is not whether he was actually right or wrong about dollars and cents. That’s a calculation with too many variables, too many contingencies, and too many ways of parsing the president’s conditional verbs. Nor is the controversy necessarily over what he meant (one might recall the press secretary to Mayor Daley the elder and his plea to the press to print what his boss meant, rather than what he said): Obama’s intention was to promote vocational education and job training as part of the administration’s campaign to expand the constituency for higher education broadly conceived. Indeed, the initial critical response by my colleagues in art history included an endorsement of that agenda. The problem lies in a rhetorical strategy that denigrates one field of study in order to promote the legitimacy of another.

And therein lies an important lesson. Many advocates of the humanities, and even liberal education broadly defined, are guilty of the same offense—just in reverse. In response to arguments that humanities education merits scarce resources in part because immersion in the humanities prepares students for a wide variety of careers, some humanists consider the very premise of utility as antithetical to the values of humanistic thinking. Writing in the Washington Post, a literary scholar labels such defenses of the humanities “dead wrong” because we humanists ought to teach our students to question the very notion of “success,” rather than preparing them for it.

The fallacy lies in the dichotomy. Promoting the value of vocationally oriented education of any kind—including preparation for manufacturing and other occupations that do not require a four-year degree—does not benefit from an implication that a very different approach to learning prepares students for very little. President Obama knows the value of learning in the humanities. He knows that a liberal education with any rigorous major and exposure to a range of other disciplines prepares a student for a cornucopia of careers—not jobs, but careers. The American economy needs both: individuals learning skills for a job that they can do immediately at a reasonable level of compensation; and individuals learning how to learn, even if at the time they haven’t the foggiest notion of how that learning might translate into employment. In the best of all possible worlds, all young people would have access to a broad education, and the president’s “access agenda” has the potential to move us toward that goal. But many people don’t have time to wait, or they already have jobs that can be enhanced quickly and easily by workplace-oriented learning. It makes sense to allocate public resources and the president’s bully pulpit to that education as well. What does not make sense is to belittle forms of knowledge whose value is less immediately utilitarian.

That said, our side of the bargain ought to include a willingness to include occupational and economic implications of educational priorities at both the societal and individual levels. A consideration of career outcomes and their role in discussions of liberal education does not necessarily diminish the value of the humanities as a form of questioning and preparation for informed citizenship. Defending the value of a humanities education has stirred a debate within our disciplines as to the appropriate terrain of advocacy. Is the defense of the humanities as preparation for a career a capitulation to economism, careerism, vocationalism, and instrumentalism—notions that are intrinsically contradictory to humanistic values? Is our proper role to teach students to interrogate the values underlying conventional notions of success instead of preparing them for “successful” careers and helping them articulate what they have learned in ways that help them find work?

It’s the “instead” that I find troubling, just as I would if the president were indeed implying “instead” when he spoke at that factory in Waukesha, Wisconsin. To stimulate a student to question conventional wisdom about success, or anything else, does not stand contrary to preparation for a career. Indeed, liberal education regardless of major ought to include sufficient humanities content so that every student is indeed pushed to ask such questions. College ought to be a place where students are encouraged to question values, ideologies, and anything else that matters. Students should indeed interrogate the nature and implications of the concept of success. And the concept of social justice. And the concept of freedom. Historians, for example, help students understand how these and other ideas central to human culture are socially constructed, contingent, and understood only in context. Does such understanding make someone a better business leader? Yes. A better lawyer? Yes. A more responsible and informed citizen? Yes. A more thoughtful participant in family and community life? Yes. One could easily go on almost endlessly.

The point is that a defense of the humanities in higher education has no more business denigrating a career orientation than the promotion of workplace training and vocational education has denigrating a humanities discipline. To value one aspect of learning ought not to require a devaluating of another aspect.

Why does this matter? It matters because Obama’s comment has a historical context. It reminds us of John McCain’s references to the uselessness of his daughter’s art history major during the 2008 presidential campaign. Even more ominously, it recalls Florida governor Rick Scott’s argument that public university students majoring in the humanities ought to pay higher tuition because their lower salaries upon graduation demonstrate their lower value to society. Next to Scott, and others who have followed in his wake, Obama’s comments seem almost benign.

But they matter for a reason beyond symbolism. The Department of Education is devising a system for rating colleges and universities, and it is possible that real money—in the form of student loans and grants—might be tied to these ratings. It remains unclear whether the ratings will include the salaries of graduates as part of the rating algorithm. But when the president—even half jokingly—casts different disciplines and types of postsecondary learning purely in terms of where “folks can make a lot more,” he is sending a signal to policy makers within the Department of Education. A ratings system that takes salary into account in evaluating the value of an education brings with it an assumption that an investment banker is more valuable to society than an elementary school teacher; an airline pilot more valuable than a clergyman; an accountant more valuable than a social worker.

This would be a mistake—just as it would be a mistake to defend the value of the humanities without taking into account both the importance of earning a living and the importance of personal growth and acquisition of the critical thinking skills essential to informed citizenship. Policy makers should avoid the temptation to equate learning with earning; and humanists should be willing to engage stakeholders outside the academy on that terrain of earning. After all, we do argue that humanities education recognizes the importance of effective communication with a range of audiences—including taking seriously one’s choice of rhetorical strategies.

James Grossman is the executive director of the AHA.


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