Oh, The Humanities!
“Folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing, or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now there’s nothing wrong with an art history degree—I love art history.”
-President Barack Obama, Waukesha, Wisconsin, January 30, 2014
When I meet people and they find out that I am a history professor, often I hear how much they enjoy a particular history story, or that someone in their family has read a book on a certain World War II general or Civil War battle. Sometimes, I learn how much they enjoy watching the History Channel, which leaves me unsure whether they are thinking of the Hitler documentaries, the backwoods reality shows, or the ridealongs with antique hunters. Curious folks—or those who have college-bound kids—often ask, “what does someone *do* with a history degree, anyway?” That question is a tough one, because as most scholars in the humanities know, there is not one clear answer. While it is a simple enough question, it evokes a dramatic answer on the grand scale.
The humanities, when pursued and practiced well, grant a richer sense of what it means to be human. The humanities ask the grand questions of life and grant a diligent student the reward of forming their own answers to those questions. Yet, many college humanities department websites suggest: “With a degree in history, you can be an archivist, a museum curator, a librarian, an archeologist, a history professor” and so forth. Even the American Historical Association settles for a list of career choices drawn from an out of print pamphlet from 1989. These lists fall far short of the idealism that motivates many of us to work in the humanities. Rather than cast such an ambitious vision of our academic discipline, we settle for a reductionist answer that attempts to make the humanities into a vocational training degree. The purpose of the humanities—and the liberal arts—is not to give students raw basic skills that prepare them for a singular task in life, but rather to expand their thinking and grant them the ability to interpret, analyze, and articulate ideas. The best humanities graduates shape the culture and anticipate the challenges of the future.
For scholars in fields such as religious studies, theology, history, and other humanities, threats to funding and program support are nothing new. What is changing is a data-driven approach, shaped by recent financial crises, that commodifies education solely by the potential earnings of graduates. The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, authored by Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), would use existing data gathered by the government on graduates from particular majors and colleges. These data would be disclosed as part of governmental reporting on each college program in the United States, with an emphasis on the financial earnings of these graduates. It is not unlike the FDA label on the back of food or vitamin supplements. And just like the FDA, the federal Department of Education would enact regulations to monitor and report the “return on investment’ for each college’s academic program.
The desire for this type of information might be called the “Moneyball” effect, based on the book by Michael Lewis and the movie starring Brad Pitt. It is the story of a transition from eyewitness scouting to statistical analysis in professional baseball. Improved analytics and statistical categories give decision makers a better opportunity to manage the tens of millions of dollars they pay to professional athletes. Other professional sports have followed suit, although there are many old school holdouts who resist the new metrics. One result of the popularity of Moneyball is that anyone who can generate a statistical report seems to be the smartest person at the table, while everyone else appears to the be the old scouts who cling to antiquated, superstitious methods of analysis. The statistics do not always work, but the rationale for this approach is that the cost of investing in a major league pitcher or other player is so high, that an actuarial risk needs to be assessed to predict the most likely outcome for that player over time. The availability of raw data does not guarantee victories for each baseball team. Every team has the same statistics to examine, but the most successful teams have the best analysts who can interpret the data.
This fascination with technology-driven data extends to education reform. In these days of polarized politics, you know you are in trouble when President Barack Obama and Senator Marco Rubio agree that you are worth disparaging. After criticizing art history in a speech promoting technical vocational training, President Obama recently wrote a letter of apology to an art history professor, which prompted Senator Rubio to remark on Twitter: “Pathetic Obama apology to art history prof. We do need more degrees that lead to #jobs.” President Obama cornered himself by his own administration’s pursuit of outcome based standards for education, which point to future earnings as the main motivator for college. Technical training is valuable for many students, but it is a mistake to eliminate the humanities and liberal arts, whether by cutting federal funding or diminishing market support. For students and parents who are unable to afford a quality college education, and may end up weighed down by student loan payments, data about potential future income is a useful tool. And just as the much-criticized Common Core and similar outcome based educational standards have dominated K-12 education reform efforts, colleges may soon see a greater degree of government involvement as a string attached to federal student funding. Scholars in the humanities need to explain just how important their programs are for potential students, but also for university leaders who may see the value of “return on investment” in marketing their colleges and universities. One approach is to promote the value of the humanities in managing the data that dominates the culture today.
There was a time, not too long ago, when public conversations might turn to a discussion of the events of the past. A disagreement over details might emerge, and there was an advantage to whoever might possess the cultural literacy necessary to recall a particular fact or detail about a time in ages past. Today, if these conversations emerge, they are settled by someone pulling out a cell phone or similar device and searching for the answer. What makes history relevant in a culture that embraces the newness of information rather than the persistence of historical narratives? Why learn art history, or religious history, when it is easier to download an app that takes you on a virtual tour of the Louvre? Cultural literacy has been replaced by a new OS.
Technology has given us a tremendous resource in the availability of data and information. What is needed is the depth of insight that allows a cultural conversation that goes deeper than just the first page of search engine results. The ubiquitous mobile device divides us from each other with a false hope that our pocket machines possess the power of data that will answer any question of life—the questions of the humanities. But owning a smart phone does not equip the user to discern among data, facts, results, information, knowledge, wisdom, and truth. That type of distinction is difficult to program into a computer, because it requires the judgment of a trained human mind. Developing that mind remains the task of the humanities and a liberal arts education. It is a long process, and one that takes years of study, practice in writing, and contemplative thinking. And it does not pay well. But students who are committed to the humanities—and their professors—have known that for years.