US historians defend their discipline

Scholars in arts and humanities departments vulnerable to subsidy cuts are fighting back. John Marcus reports

March 14, 2013

Source: Getty/Alamy

Important discipline or a poor investment?: arts and humanities degrees are at risk of being pushed into the private sector as state governments favour job-orientated science courses

Some history professors in Florida are paying more attention these days to the future than to the past.

The historians have organised themselves to promote the value of their discipline against a growing sentiment that history is “non-strategic” in an economy that needs more engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and workers in the health professions.

This is no longer just an academic issue. Like several other US politicians, Florida’s governor, Republican Rick Scott, has questioned whether taxpayers should continue fully subsidising public universities to teach subjects he says are in low demand. Academics in the humanities and some social sciences fear this threatens the survival of their departments.

“If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education, then I’m going to take that money to create jobs,” Scott told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

The Republican governors of North Carolina and Wisconsin have made similar pronouncements. “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine. Go to a private school and take it,” said North Carolina’s governor, Patrick McCrory.

“But I don’t want to subsidise that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, has said that public technical colleges in his state should be judged on whether “young people [are] getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today, not just the jobs that the universities want to give us”.

This debate about the relative worth of the sciences versus the humanities is not new. But it has been propelled by the escalating cost of higher education.

As students fall deeper into debt to pay for their tuition, more than two- thirds now believe the goal of going to a university is to increase their earning power, according to research by Arthur Levine, president emeritus of Teachers College, Columbia University.

About 88 per cent of this year’s first-year undergraduates in the US say that “getting a better job” is the top reason they enrolled, according to a survey by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Higher Education Research Institute (The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2012). In 2006, 71 per cent gave that reason.

Music students and teacher

Internal division

The debate has even driven a wedge between conventional four-year universities and some two-year community colleges, which enrol about half of the nation’s post-secondary students and typically focus on vocational education.

“It is time we all accept the fact that a traditional four-year liberal arts education is a poor investment for America’s middle class,” Tom Snyder, president of Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, has written. “Today’s economy cannot support more art history or philosophy majors.”

In response, several associations of universities with four-year courses are fighting back. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) is aggressively advocating the importance of imparting “broad knowledge and transferable skills”. And the Council of Independent Colleges has established a Campaign for the Liberal Arts that will provide research and data to dispel stereotypes about the discipline.

“There is a new and heightened perception driving this trend that associations and organisations need to help the public better understand the value of the liberal arts,” said Laura Wilcox, the council’s spokeswoman.

The organisations contend that what employers really want from universities is not job training but graduates who can think critically, write and speak well, and solve problems.

“[Employers] say, ‘I want an engineer who can talk to people. I want an engineer who can write a memo. I want an engineer who doesn’t act like a goof.’ Everybody rolls their eyes when [employers] do that, but the data says they’re right,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

An AAC&U survey of corporate executives found that nearly 90 per cent want workers with verbal and written communication skills, 75 per cent are looking for graduates who understand ethical decision-making, and 70 per cent say they need innovative and creative employees.

“None of this is to [criticise] the disciplines of science and engineering and technology, but we also need to train people in the art of understanding the world around them, where they fit into society and all of those sorts of things,” said Norman Goda, a history professor at the University of Florida who has helped to organise a petition against the governor’s proposal to charge lower fees for “strategic” majors in high workplace demand and more for “non-strategic” - largely humanities - majors, such as history.

“I can’t predict the downfall of man if there are fewer history majors but the cumulative effect over decades would surely not be a good one,” he added.

Students at work

Class divisions

Others say the trend could deepen class divisions as some students will continue to be able to afford a humanities education while others will have no choice but to seek specific job skills.

“The rich get education and the poor get training,” Carnevale said. “It’s a way of reproducing class. The higher education system is now in cahoots with the economy to reproduce class.” Already, he added, “there are a lot of kids who are not getting a real education any more. They’re getting training.”

Reversing that shift will not be easy. The proportion of students majoring in the humanities has already fallen to just 8 per cent, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, down from a peak of more than 17 per cent in 1967.

“The issue of questioning the value of the liberal arts has been going on for more than just the past few years. It’s been going on for decades,” Goda said.

“Part of the problem that the liberal arts has always had is that you really cannot quantify what we do.

“The possibility of someone with a nursing degree going into nursing is very, very high. Someone with an English degree or a history degree could go into any one of a number of fields. They train you for a number of careers - not necessarily one,” he added.

More likely to get a job

Yet no matter what the university associations say, students with degrees in the sciences are incontrovertibly more likely to get a job and make more money than graduates in the humanities. The unemployment rate in 2012 for recent history majors was 10.2 per cent, compared with 7.5 per cent for students who majored in engineering, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce reports.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that humanities and social science graduates earn $36,988 (£24,437) a year compared with $61,913 for engineering graduates.

“There’s more and more tension about this, especially as prices go up,” Carnevale said.

That tension is clearly being felt in history departments and by faculty in other humanities disciplines.

“When tenured faculty retire, they’re not going to be replaced,” Goda said. “What you may have, and what you have had, is the detritus of history, English and political science departments being combined into a department of humanities.

“And once you tear down departments like those, it’s tough, if it’s possible at all, to restore them.”

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