On the Economic Value of the Humanities

By Amod Lele

I’ve been asked to expand on some brief comments I made a little while ago in a Facebook thread. They pertain to the institutional context of the humanities – including philosophy and especially religious studies – in academia. The comments I made stem from a recently published piece by the AAR on the topic of teaching and learning. The newsletter highlights Martha Reineke, a professor of religion at the University of Northern Iowa. In explaining Reineke’s views, it identifies some questions important to her with the introduction: “At a time when liberal education in public universities is being challenged as governing boards, state legislatures, parents, and students press for majors with narrow vocational application, questions that keep Reineke awake at night include:”. Of the questions listed there after the colon, I’m particularly interested in this one: “When others increasingly ascribe to public higher education as a narrow economic value, how can we demonstrate that knowledge of world religions builds intercultural competence that undergirds successful economic development and supports strong communities?”

My response to this question was as follows:

The rhetorical move of “When others increasingly believe that higher education should be X, how can we convince them that we are a form of X?” is an interesting one to take. When others increasingly believe that higher education should be an ice cream sandwich, how can we demonstrate that we are an ice cream sandwich?

I admit the tone of the response was snarky, but I hope its point comes across. It is true that many increasingly see higher education as a narrow economic value, a credential for the job market. But that doesn’t imply that those who still work in humanities education should view its primary benefit as job training. For as far as I can see, once the humanities surrender that battle, then they have lost the war: once it has become accepted that the value of the humanities is primarily economic, then it is only a matter of time before they are eliminated entirely.

Sure, an undergraduate humanities education teaches skills that are often useful in the job market: writing, research, critical thinking. So too the “intercultural competence” that Reineke mentions. But if these are the reason to get an undergraduate degree, then one is best served with a degree tailored specifically to these skills: in rhetoric and composition, or in area studies. One is not best served by the old humanities disciplines – philosophy, literature, history, religious studies – and their characteristic methods of inquiry. These fields teach a large amount of content knowledge that has no marketable applications. Nor should it – for that was never supposed to be the point.

I am well aware of the pressures facing university students today, especially in the United States. While I believe that the kind of knowledge taught in philosophy and religious studies is valuable in and of itself, I know that even intrinsic value has its limits. Even if the undergraduate humanities were usually taught brilliantly, in a way that inspired and changed lives the way they should, such a transformation would still not be worth the lifetime of indentured servitude that undergraduate debt often creates. Here’s the thing, though: neither is training in critical thinking or “intercultural competence”. Those don’t give you much of an advantage in a job market where even university humanities graduates can land in poorly paid no-future jobs. If one is going to go hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt for a university education, it had really better be in engineering, medicine, or a similar field that will allow one a chance of freeing oneself from that burden. The humanities cannot compete in such an arena and I don’t see why they should try.

No, the humanities can best make their case to those who are not mortgaging their future for a degree. At a private university, that generally means the students who get scholarships or are wealthy. But notice in particular that Reineke is referring to public higher education. The arguments for the humanities can and should take on a very different cast in such a place than they do at an American private college. Public universities exist and should exist because they are a public good – the state subsidizes an activity which would be impossible without it. Among these activities are the transmission of great, valuable ideas from generation to generation, and the continual reinterpretation of those ideas for new and different times. Those are the reasons that the humanities came into being in the first place, and they continue to be the reasons the humanities are valuable now. In a public context, the academic humanities should make their case on those old-fashioned but perennial grounds.

I suspect this may also be the best way for academic humanists to make their case even within private universities – for what is forgotten there, amid the terribly unfortunate rhetoric of students as “customers”, is that even private universities are nonprofits. Except at for-profit universities like the University of Phoenix–where everybody gets an A because that’s what they paid for–universities have a mission that goes beyond fee-for-service. We can make a case that the transmission and reinterpretation of great ideas is part of that mission.

I am aware that even within the humanities, many–perhaps most–do not see their task as so old-fashioned. Call them postmodernists, critical theorists, or whatever one wishes, these more recent humanists view the task of the humanities as something different: a kind of critique that goes well beyond “critical thinking” in the usual sense, to a radical unmasking of society’s hidden presuppositions. Fine. There is much I would disagree with in this approach in general, but that disagreement is not relevant to the case I’m making here. For the economic case for these critical humanities is no better than that for the old-fashioned humanities. Learning to deconstruct the oppressive assumptions of the capitalist system is not going to prepare you well to make money within that system. Both views of the humanities see the correct point that the humanities need to justify themselves on grounds proper to their own inquiry, whether those grounds be the transmission of great ideas or the deconstruction of the status quo. And the humanities in the public academy must make their case to governments on one or both of these grounds, grounds that have nothing to do with economic value and marketability.

If they cannot–if the only case for their survival within academia must be economic–then the academic humanities are already dead. It’s just a question of how quickly we bury them.

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One Response to On the Economic Value of the Humanities

  1. Amod Lele says:

    I wanted to add that I have cross-posted this post at my blog, Love of All Wisdom. The blog covers issues at the intersection between religious studies and philosophy, with special attention paid to Asian traditions. I do regularly return to questions of method, though I would be the first to say my positions on those questions are highly controversial. Readers here may find it of interest.

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