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I am grateful for Jeffrey Aaron Snyder’s recent essay on “Higher Education in the Age of Coronavirus,” which is full of useful—if alarming—information that everyone concerned with the future of higher education needs to consider. Yet I flinched when I came to his concluding paragraph, in which he exhorts the reader to “make stronger cases for [higher education’s] value,” including the intrinsic values of “character formation and intellectual exploration.”
The idea that college faculty and their allies have somehow failed to “make the case” for the value of their work is one of the hoariest clichés of higher ed commentary—our equivalent to the legendary “since the dawn of time”-style opening for undergraduate papers. A Google search for “the case for the humanities” turns up multiple books and articles. The tradition is so well established that new contributors can even engage in ironic meta-commentary on its conventions, as when a recent column argued that the best case for the humanities is precisely that there is no case. It is clear enough why academics would be drawn to a solution that draws on their particular skillsets of persuasion and argumentation, but the demand that we “make the case” is naïve and impotent.
For a generation or more, institutions of higher education have been actively dismantled—in many ways, transformed beyond recognition—by powerful constituencies who are actively hostile to academic values. These constituencies include conservative politicians who view widespread access to liberal arts education as a recipe for social upheaval, and business leaders who want to shunt the expense of training workers for highly technical jobs onto the university system (and ultimately the students themselves). They do not need to be told of the benefits of a liberal arts education. They have often benefited from such an education themselves and are happy to provide it for their own children—including at elite Ivy League schools that do not even have the kind of vocational programs that they recommend so fervently for everyone else. They are well aware of the potential of liberal arts degrees to produce engaged and informed citizens who can navigate an ever-changing job market with confidence and creativity. That is precisely why they want to keep a true liberal arts education as a preserve of the elite, consigning everyone else to narrowly vocational paths that teach them how best to serve those above them in the social hierarchy.
The problem is not persuasion, but power—and propaganda. We can see how effective these two allied forces have been in shaping the terms of debate about higher education. According to the recent study by the Pew Research Center Snyder refers to, some 61 percent of adults in the United States—73 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Democrats—agree that higher education is headed in the wrong direction. The headline highlights the partisan divide, and it is true that an overwhelming majority of Republicans report being very concerned with the potential for ideological indoctrination, while Democrats are about equally likely to see such issues as unimportant. There is much more agreement on the bread-and-butter issues of high costs and job preparedness, where majorities of both political groups see significant problems.
Is there a similar partisan divide on a college education’s contribution to character formation and engaged citizenship? That remains a mystery; such questions are absent from the Pew survey. The alliance of conservative politicians and business interests has been so successful at shaping the cultural common sense around higher education that the areas where we liberal arts faculty members are best equipped to “make the case” are completely missing from the agenda. How can we “make the case” to a society that does not have ears to hear it?
Admittedly, even within the impoverished terms of debate imposed by interests hostile to higher education, liberal arts degrees fare surprisingly well. Even the business press has noticed. Forbes reported last fall that the much-lauded STEM fields do not provide the promised economic advantage over traditional liberal arts fields. As reporter Derek Newton puts it, “getting a STEM education may help you get a good job early but if you want a good career, you’re better off in liberal arts lane. In other words, even if you’re only measuring money, a liberal arts education is probably worth a ton more than most people may think.” Tom Slee made a similar point three years ago in these very pages in his review of Scott Hartley’s book The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World (2017), which argues that liberal arts majors are better positioned than their STEM counterparts to succeed in Silicon Valley.
In the New York Times, for its part, researcher David Deming agrees: “The advantage for STEM . . . majors fades steadily after their first jobs, and by age 40 the earnings of people who majored in fields like social science or history have caught up.” The reason for this is clear: the narrowly technical skills that students learn in such fields quickly shift from cutting-edge to out-of-date, while the broader and more flexible skills conveyed by liberal arts fields prove more durably valuable. Yet the cultural common sense is that students who major in liberal arts fields will die on the street—or less dramatically, wind up as underemployed baristas, a fate that is actually more likely to befall the ever-expanding number of business majors that universities pump out each year. This misconception is widespread even among those most sympathetic to the liberal arts, including many faculty members in those fields themselves.
Where does this disconnect come from? Frankly, it results from a systematic campaign of lies by the same allied interests. On a political level, liberal arts graduates are less likely to fall for the kinds of simplistic propaganda spewed by Fox News, Breitbart, and right-wing talk radio, which conservative politicians have increasingly relied on to rally their electoral base. On the economic level, the agenda may initially seem less clear. Why would business leaders encourage as many students as possible to go (at least initially) into precisely the highest-paying fields?
Here I think we might benefit from recalling one of the first lessons of Econ 101: all things being equal, what happens when the supply of something increases? Obviously, the price goes down. In other words, by churning out as many STEM majors as possible, institutions of higher education are effectively commodifying those skills—and charging those future professionals for the privilege of depressing wages in their field. And after congratulating them for graduating with a job offer in hand, colleges and universities turn immediately to the task of training up the next cohort with cutting-edge skills so that their predecessors can be easily replaced with cheaper, younger workers.
Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t believe it is the mission of higher education to perpetuate this destructive dynamic. Nor do I think it makes much sense on a purely institutional level, because STEM programs are expensive to run. Labs, state-of-the-art computers, and other high-end equipment all cost a lot of money—and even in fields without those capital requirements, such as math or economics, the cost of retaining faculty is higher due to their greater range of employment opportunities.
By contrast, liberal arts programs are intrinsically cheap to run, often requiring little more than a chalkboard and some Penguin Classics. Adjunctification has made them even less costly. An honest accounting would show that, in most institutions, liberal arts courses are cross-subsidizing STEM fields—but yet again, the cultural common sense, often including among faculty members themselves, runs the opposite way. Indeed, when it comes time to make cuts, liberal arts programs are always first to the chopping block. One highly publicized example is the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, which planned to close thirteen liberal arts programs in 2018, citing fiscal concerns. The university abandoned the plan in 2019, but far from rebounding financially, it is now furloughing 15 percent of its employees in response to COVID-19. More recently, Ohio University has made headlines by announcing layoffs, including of tenured faculty, concentrated in liberal arts areas. Once again, coronavirus is providing the pretext, but it is hard to deny that this historically unprecedented crisis is prompting the same kinds of measures colleges and universities are already inclined to take. In 2012 Florida Governor Rick Scott has even proposed charging students more tuition if they major in non-STEM fields.
None of this makes economic sense. Why kill inexpensive programs that often serve as profit-centers while doubling down on the huge capital investments associated with STEM? The answer is that the health of individual institutions is a subordinate concern, at best, for the business interests who set the agenda for U.S. higher education—as evidenced by the fact that so many institutions are perpetually on the verge of failing even as aggregate demand for higher education has never been higher. In addition to the benefits of STEM fields over liberal arts programs already mentioned, the hegemony of STEM creates a situation where colleges and universities are more dependent on major donations, which corporations and wealthy individuals are obviously in the best position to provide. Those institutions which borrow to build new facilities then often need to hike tuition to service the debt—further incentivizing students to pursue supposedly more economically viable majors.
No single institution has the ability to break this destructive cycle—and any college president who seriously tried would surely be removed from office by the institutional representatives of the business class—the Board of Trustees—and replaced by someone more willing to continue pursuing “best practices.” Indeed, given the stranglehold of the business-oriented cultural common sense on higher education, shifting away from expensive STEM programs to more cost-effective liberal arts programs could well lead to a catastrophic drop in enrollment for any individual college that attempted it. Yet even when economic imperatives do not point in that direction, “best practices” continue to undermine academic values, as when the provost of one of the wealthiest schools on earth, Stanford University, threatened to end subsidies for their prestigious university press, saying that the press needed to be financially self-sustaining (i.e., profitable). An international outcry among academics ultimately drove the provost to relent—but why should a person who would even consider such a gratuitously destructive act have any decision-making authority in an institution of higher learning?
I do not claim to know in detail how to change this self-reinforcing dynamic, but it is clear to me that “making the case” to the existing powers that be is unlikely to have any effect. The only answer is to have leadership that already shares academic values, which necessarily presupposes restoring faculty control over our institutions. Part of that will mean reasserting—or in some cases establishing—traditions of faculty self-governance. And that can’t happen as long as we allow cost-cutting administrators to divide us into a privileged minority of tenured and tenure-track faculty and a disposable majority of contingent faculty and graduate students. Strong, fully inclusive unions that fight for decent working conditions for the whole faculty are the only viable way to form an independent power base that gives faculty members real leverage over the administration. Given how entrenched the destructive “best practices” are at most existing institutions, though, more radical measures—such as founding new, faculty-run cooperatives—may be more effective. Whatever specific strategies we choose, however, we need to keep firmly in mind that the answer is not persuasion, but power.
Correction Notice: An earlier version of this essay incorrectly stated that the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point closed thirteen liberal arts majors in 2018. In fact, in 2019 the university abandoned its plans to shutter those programs.
Besides overturning the very structure of higher education virtually overnight, COVID-19 will also accelerate a number of troubling longer-term trends—including less public funding and a migration of courses online.
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