In an Era of Cost-Cutting, Can the Humanities Survive?

From the New York Times.
My colleague Danny Crichton has an excellent article in the Review print edition (the first part of a three-part series, which you can find [here]( tracing the historical development and decline of the humanities in American universities (and Stanford in particular). The emphasis, unfortunately, is on “decline.” And Danny isn’t the only one worrying: recent cutbacks at State University of New York (SUNY) campuses which [forced the closure]( of several language and humanities departments ignited a short-lived firestorm of agonized rhetoric about the fate of the humanities ([here ]( [here](, for example). To public universities across the nation, under pressure from drastic reductions in state education budgets, the humanities appear to be a field ripe for cost-cutting. And even private universities aren’t pushing the humanities like they used to; as Danny notes, federal dollars for the humanities are quite scarce, especially compared to the abundant outflow of public money for research in the natural and social sciences.

I don’t think that many of us at Stanford would dismiss the value of the humanities in academic life. While I do spend most of my time in NatSci courses, some of my best classroom experiences on the Farm have been in humanities departments: philosophy, ethics in society, creative writing, drama. These classes have been exciting and personally enriching, and they’ve also exposed me to various ways of thinking and writing that will no doubt serve me well in the future. I’m an especially avid fan of philosophy, which I consider absolutely indispensable to a proper understanding of human society and politics (as well as other things). (If you’re interested in reading more about the value of the humanities, check out this column by Aysha Bagchi over at the Daily.)

But unfortunately, in this era of budget-cutting and tough fiscal decisions, the mere fact of a program’s utility or value is not enough to save it. The real question facing the humanities at institutions without Stanford’s resources, and especially at certain state schools & community colleges, is not one of absolute value but of *comparative *value. Many of these institutions are explicitly designed to give state residents a boost out of the lower classes- that is, to provide them with the training and tools they need to pursue more attractive jobs and successful futures. Yes, the study of the humanities can- as Aysha points out- can be powerfully influential in shaping the kind of thought process one needs in order to succeed in the “real world.” But in the brave new financial world of public education, something has to give. The demise of science, engineering, computer science, and vocational education programs, which teach the kind of practical skills that allow graduates to secure good jobs, would undoubtedly be even worse for these schools and their students than the loss of humanities departments. No matter how much I respect the humanities as academic disciplines, the naked truth is that a bachelor’s degree in a humanities field is not worth much in the job market unless it comes stamped with a name like Stanford, Harvard, or Yale.

We are often told that higher education should not be seen in terms of job training, but rather as an exercise in intellectual and social self-improvement, which sometimes has economic side-effects. But can this view pass muster in a vicious job market? Intellectual cachet and a sense of cultural knowledge are, sadly, of little use in the face of long-term unemployment, underemployment, or crushing debt. And with millions of college graduates- most, I would guess, former humanities majors- unemployed or employed in fields that require no degree, can we in good conscience continue to insist on the real-world value of higher education?

So what is to be done? I don’t think that state schools and community colleges should eliminate the study of the humanities altogether; the skills in critical thinking and communication that these courses can impart are incredibly valuable in the job market and the “real world.” But the maintenance of entire departments (with their research and staff budgets) in each of the humanities fields is probably too much of a burden. Consolidation, streamlining, and a renewed focus on teaching should be the rule of the day. With some realistic cuts and honest cost/benefit analysis, perhaps the humanities won’t have to become a luxury.

And what about the Farm? We can probably count on the school’s reputation to enhance the job prospects of graduates from all majors, and very few of us are attempting to find employment based on our degrees alone. And given the school’s vast resources, I think our humanities departments will be safe for a while longer. But I’m still eager to read the next two installments of Danny’s series.

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