jump to navigation

Crisis in the Humanities October 13, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, Philosophy.
Tags: ,

As the recession cuts into budget outlays for higher education, not only in the U.S. but across Europe as well, it appears that the humanities are taking the biggest hit.

Philosophy programs and language departments have been shut down in a variety of states as well as in the U.K, and Humanities departments are being forced to prove they contribute to the bottom line in order to justify their existence.

In light of these developments, the article by Stanley Fish in the NY Times earlier this week was troubling.

And indeed, if your criteria are productivity, efficiency and consumer satisfaction, it makes perfect sense to withdraw funds and material support from the humanities — which do not earn their keep…

And it won’t do, in the age of entrepreneurial academics, zero-based budgeting and “every tub on its own bottom,” to ask computer science or biology or the medical school to fork over some of their funds so that the revenue-poor classics department can be sustained.

Stanley Fish is a literary critic, Professor of Humanities and Law, and a former Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at University of Illinois. One would think he would be sympathetic to the plight of the Humanities.

But with friends like this who needs enemies?

Christopher Newfield’s ongoing research on university funding comes to radically different conclusions:

Further budget research needs to be done, and far more budgetary data need to be disclosed and discussed. In the meantime, I propose these conclusions from my case study. The humanities and social sciences are major donors to science and engineering budgets. Major dogmas about university research turn out to be wrong: science and engineering research costs money, and humanities and social sciences teaching subsidizes it. Furthermore, humanities and social sciences students receive a cheap education—that is, they get back less than they put in.

Making matters worse, university officials have historically perpetuated the myth that the science and engineering fields are the generous subsidizers of the “soft” humanitiesand social science fields.

This concealment of the humanities’ contributionto the progress of science fed the vicious cycle of the culture wars: underfunded humanities fields cannot buy respectability through the media,think tanks, or prominent science agencies, a limitation that gives free reinto assertions that the humanities produce only pseudo-knowledge. This belief has lowered the humanities’ status, which in turn has justified flator declining funding, which further lowers the humanities’ status, whichencourages further cuts.

More generally, the overall financial stability of higher education—especially public higher education—has been undermined by an increasingly dysfunctional postwar research-funding model that depends on subsidies from teaching revenues that are being cut from state budgets and added to student costs. Finally, the hidden subsidy—in which high-enrollment, high-teaching-load fields in the humanities andsocial sciences help pay for advanced scientific research—is the primary reason why the humanities are perpetually poor.

In offering this analysis of budgetary myths and inequities, I am notseeking to foment a class war between the arts and sciences. I admire and study the sciences and their sociocultural impacts and think they, as well as the arts, need even more funding than they have. Given the funding crisis for all higher education, now would be the worst possible time to set upa zero-sum competition between different sides of campus, and I instead advocate cooperation and collaboration across all our disciplines.My analysis is intended to encourage truth in budgeting.

I’m no expert on college financing but many people, such as Andrew Hacker, have argued that in our system of higher education, undergraduate teaching subsidizes research. We overcharge students for tuition and fees and underpay faculty by hiring mostly adjuncts, and that money goes to pay for endowments, new technology, intercollegiate sports, expensive student centers, and graduate student education, especially in engineering and the sciences, which ends up benefiting big business.

Of course, given that it is big business that ends up benefiting from this, it is not a surprise that this scam is not well publicized.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com