A subjective case for humanities education

I’ve often heard advocates for the preservation of humanities education programs make their case in quantitative terms. Usually, this case is made by pointing to various studies on how art or music classes translate into X percentage points of increased intelligence, or college admissions chances, or other individual and social benefits.

I have nothing against those studies, and I can’t say for sure whether or not such an approach is effective in persuading anyone to change their mind and make humanities education a priority. Perhaps this strategy makes sense: Provide numbers and data from the scientific community to communicate with the people interested in science and math in their own language, so to speak.

But I’m not entirely sure it’s the best way to make the case. After all, humanities subjects by their nature are fairly abstract and not easily boiled down into calculations and percentages, even with the advent of “big data” and the entrance of sabermetrics into every possible field.

Reframe the debate

I suspect that trying to compete with sciences in purely STEM-oriented terms is not the most effective approach after all. It’s hard to compete with STEM for budgetary prioritization by shoehorning the arts, literature, and history into STEM’s turf, where STEM defines the terms of the debate.

There is a prevailing assumption that everything can be converted into numerical values, and that we can forge our country into a Blue-ribbon technocracy of “best practices” with no subjective judgment calls (or perhaps eventually even directional disagreements altogether). This assumption cannot be accepted at face value if the humanities are ever to regain their rightful place as an integral feature of American public education alongside STEM.

I’m certainly a proponent of ensuring that all our children receive strong sciences educations – I want everyone in a society to know at least the fundamentals of how things work in fields other than their own, so that they are informed, not ignorant – but the advocates of STEM have already made their cases persuasively, while the humanities advocates are struggling (or often failing) to win support in budget battles each year.

For that reason, I think it’s time to make a more subjective and abstract case for humanities education. The terms of the debate itself have shifted too much toward the sciences, a development which undercuts the ability to promote the broader values of strong humanities educations.

As I noted in my rationale above for supporting STEM as well, for me, a big purpose of public education up through high school is to ensure every child graduates with at least a minimum and functional knowledge of how the world works, across all disciplines. Not only does this allow everyone to make a fully informed decision on what profession to pursue, but also it prevents society from Balkanizing into disparate occupations with no systemic knowledge or understanding. The business world buzzword battalion might call this “big picture thinking.”

Reframe the world

One of the key benefits of history and social studies classes, for example, is the ability to formulate a narrative understanding of the world: How we got here, where we are, and where we can (or even should) go next.

Literature classes compel us to ask these questions in hypothetical scenarios, fictional scenes, and timeless situations. English reading courses can teach us critical thinking and assessment of evidence quality in the non-fiction realm.

Language classes allow us not merely to compete in the global economy but to understand how vocabulary and linguistics shape national psychology and individual worldviews.

Music classes unite or bridge us across time and place and culture. Art courses can show us other ways of thinking about the world we live in and the world our forebears lived in.

All of these elements add a dimension of creativity to the future workforce that used to set the U.S. economy apart from its peers for so many years. We need that back.

The new Renaissance human

To me, it is worth noting that many of the early scientific pioneers and thinkers had extensive multi-disciplinary backgrounds. It helped foster their curiosity into making certain discoveries, and it helped them communicate those findings to the wider world. Those days are long over – sciences, mathematics, and more have all branched out deeply enough to require total specialization – but STEM professionals should still have a strong foundation in the full range of humanities, so that they can contextualize their own work within wider policy and political debates.
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January 28, 2015 – Arsenal For Democracy 115

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Topics: Big Ideas – Zero-Tuition Public College; Greek elections. People: Bill, Nate. Produced: January 26th, 2015.

Discussion Points:

– Big Ideas for Reforming American Governance: Should the federal government offer a zero-tuition 4-year public college system? Is this feasible?
– How will Syriza’s win in the Greek elections affect Greece and the EU?

Episode 115 (46 min)
AFD 115

Related links
Segment 1

ThinkProgress: How Obama Could Make College Free For Everyone Without Spending A Dime
EdWeek: Some Higher Education Advocates Wary of President’s Free Community College Plan
The Atlantic: Is There a Better Way to Deal With Student-Loan Debt?

Segment 2

AFD: The Questions Posed by World’s 2015 Elections
AFD: Syriza-Independent Greeks coalition takes office

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iTunes Store Link: “Arsenal for Democracy by Bill Humphrey”

And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video blog of our announcer, Justin.

Should we aim bigger on higher education demands?

Beyond free community college tuition for two years, as proposed by President Obama last week, should young people and students be demanding even more?

Political infeasibility aside, what about just making college tuition zero at all public colleges in the United States for four years? Implementation logistics might be difficult (who pays whom how much, when something is free to the end user?), but the projected Federal costs of such a policy are actually fairly reasonable:

If President Obama truly wants to transform the cost of higher education, however, he could make college free for all students without having to lay out more money to pay for it. That’s because the federal government could take the $69 billion it currently spends to subsidize the cost of college through grants, tax breaks, and work-study funds and instead cover tuition at all public colleges, which came to $62.6 billion in 2012, the most recent data. (The government spends another $197.4 billion on student loans.) That would give all students who want to get a college degree a free option to do so. It could also put pressure on private universities to compete with the free option by reducing their costs, which have risen 13 percent over the last five years.

Eliminating college tuition with the money spent on subsidies could also make the system more equal. Currently, the government’s tax-based aid mostly flows to wealthy families instead of low- and middle-income ones. And Pell Grants, which do go to low-income students, have been cut in recent years and cover a small percentage of the cost of college.

 
If a free tuition program were means-tested or something along those lines — to ensure affluent students were not being given free rides on taxpayer funds (though I’m sure that would prove very politically unpopular and might undermine support for giving it to anyone) — the cost would be even less.

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Are Republicans going the wrong way on higher ed reform?

There’s a mounting push from Congressional Republicans (and some Democrats, possibly including Pres. Obama) to “break” the current accreditation system for higher education, to try to make college more affordable and more useful. Slate’s Jordan Weissman has a new piece out on the various efforts, titled The Dangerous Conservative Idea for Making College Cheaper. I think this article is on the right track and appropriately nuanced in its evaluation, despite the hardline headline:

Any conversation about fixing our broken accreditation system needs to think about both sides of the equation: making room for new ideas and pushing out bad ones. Right now, the majority of politicians are focused mostly on the first half, which should worry us all. You can talk about smashing the cartel all you want. But I’m not sure anybody would be happy with what might take its place.

 
There are some definite problems with the system as-is, but the solutions being pitched (by Republicans especially) are mostly off-base — such as ditching any system of regulation or quality control altogether, instead of fixing it — with some buried potential within them.

For example, it would actually be really interesting if major corporations could design apprenticeship-style programs that teach a transferable skills base useful to working in that industry (that company as well as the wider field) and have those programs being recognized in some way similar to a bachelor’s degree. But, again, that doesn’t require dismantling the entire accreditation system.

That said, I think the accreditation system does need to be dramatically shaken up to deal with the for-profit scam-school menace, which they’ve really let slide.

Additionally, I think that there’s some merit to the idea of reforming the financial aid system (though not the Republican way) to make sure it’s actually going to people who need it to go to school at all and that it’s purchasing a valuable education for those students. At the moment, it seems more geared toward handing out aid to upper-ish middle class kids (who will at least go to some college with or without financial aid) to help them pay for luxury name-brand schools instead of cheaper schools, and that’s allowing colleges to jack up everyone’s degree costs, given the inflated supply of available money to purchase them. In the same vein, we need to invest a lot more into the public higher education system to make those degrees both affordable to all and of exemplary and recognized quality.

Federal Intervention

One of the more popular stances this election cycle for teabagger candidates to take has been to openly call for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education. All the mainstream people I talk to seem totally confused as to why this would be necessary or a good idea. The short explanation is that this is a logical extension of the States’ Rights Conservatism that had sort of gone underground for a couple decades.

Via DailyKos, Ken Buck, Republican U.S. Senate nominee from Colorado, adopted the anti-Department of Education position, too, although not very gracefully. While there are real and serious problems with education in America today, the educational system is much improved over what it used to be. Ken Buck, however, falls into the “Back in the Day” trap, wherein a person is convinced that everything was significantly better before and has gone to hell now, and the explanation he sees is the increased Federal involvement in education.

In what was either a very unfortunate slip of the tongue or an intentional historical allusion, he identified the 1950s — at least twenty years prior to the establishment of the Department of Education — as the decade when Federal involvement in education began a long decline (as he perceives it) toward the reduced standards, poor graduation rates, and other problems he sees in our current education system nationally… From ColoradoPols (emphasis from the source, video available there):

Question: [brief lead-in] What plans do you have to make public education better in America?

Buck: “Let’s talk about that [education] folks. In the 1950s, we had the best schools in the world. And the United States government decided to get more involved in federal education. Where are we now, after all those years of federal involvement, are we better or are we worse? So what’s the federal government’s answer? Well since we’ve made education worse, we’re gonna even get more involved. And what’s gonna be the result? It’s kinda like health care. We’ve screwed up health care–Medicare–we’ve screwed up all kinds of other things, so what are we gonna do? We’re gonna get even more involved in health care. What are we going to do? We’re gonna get more involved in education.

 
Again, there are many, many problems with that entire answer, including that our education system actually sucked by and large in the 1950s and was not the best in the world. But the bolding is what most interests us. It’s possible he just grabbed that decade randomly or accidentally, but it seems unlikely. Presumably he had a reason to choose to cite it, and that reason is what we should establish.

As you might have worked out by now, the only really noteworthy, historic, and well-known times the “United States government decided to get more involved in Federal education,” during the 1950s was in desegregation-related episodes: Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Federal intervention of U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division paratroopers in Little Rock to integrate Central High School in 1958.

Actual Federal education/curriculum type programs didn’t really start until the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations in the 1960s. And even most of those small early programs like the Presidential Phyiscal Fitness Award could hardly be credited with launching the decline of Western Civilization American public education. If you’re talking about “Federal involvement” in education before the 1960s, you’re pretty much only talking about integration.

So what exactly did Ken Buck mean when he blamed Federal involvement in the schools beginning in the 1950s to a decline he perceives in our education system? Does he think government-enforced integration was bad? It’s a fair question, given a similar position from Republican US Senate nominee from Kentucky, Rand Paul, on desegregation.

 
This post was originally published at Starboard Broadside.