as Florida threatens to charge more for the humanities, those disciplines require a defense

A gubernatorial task force in Florida proposes making state university tuition cheaper for students in “high-skill, high-wage, high-demand (market determined strategic demand) degree programs.” The task force suggests that those programs may include 111 different majors in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)–but no humanities programs. A petition organized by history professors “take[s] issue with the task force’s recommendations.” The petition turns quickly from an invocation of the “liberal arts” (undefined and undefended) to an economic argument:

The punitive differential tuition model will lead not only to a decimation of the liberal arts in Florida. It will also have a destructive impact on the essential and transferrable skills that these disciplines teach. Indeed, the Florida Council of 100 (a non-partisan organization of business leaders) submitted a lengthy memo to the task force in which the Council noted the pressing need for “liberal arts grads with superior analytical, critical thinking, and communication skills who can quickly learn and apply industry/company specific skills.”

The humanities and other liberal arts require a defense. We who teach or study them do not have an automatic right to the voters’ money. (I wrote the “voters’ money,” not the “taxpayers’ money,” because the public purse belongs to everyone on an equal basis, not just to the people who pay income or other direct taxes.) As representatives of the public, the Florida legislature is entitled to ask what it achieves by modestly subsidizing tuition in state universities and, specifically, in liberal arts departments. I don’t think that calling the task force’s proposal for differential rates uncultured would be helpful or adequate. For one thing, many cultures have produced and prized both arts and scholarship without having institutions like state universities.

Also, I am not completely against subsidizing education that has “market-determined strategic demand.” If there is demand for a skill, someone will teach it, but the reason to offer it in a public university is to give disadvantaged students a chance to learn it affordably. That is an equity-oriented argument for investing in subjects like STEM.

The argument for the humanities and other liberal arts could also be “consequentialist,” pointing to concrete benefits from studying these subjects. I am hoping to do some ambitious empirical research on the community-level benefits of participating in the humanities. I’d hypothesize that the benefits will be seen in areas like mental health.

But consequentialist arguments are a double-edged sword. Maybe the humanities do not pay off as expected–or maybe they have benefits, but something else is more cost-effective. That alternative could even be something that we also admire, such as making music. Once one begins looking for ratios of cost to benefits, it’s not a safe bet that history, literature, or philosophy will come out ahead.

In any case, one hopes for a good cost/benefit ratio because there is something about history, literature, and philosophy that seems intrinsically valuable. Imagine a society in which everyone had a secure and well-paying job (zero unemployment), but no one knew anything about the past. Presumably, that would be worse than our current society. Now, it doesn’t necessarily take subsidized tuition at state universities to produce and disseminate knowledge of the past–the History Channel also does that. But if we add considerations of excellence and equity to the mix, we start to make a case for the liberal arts in public universities.

We might also think in terms of moral and civic outcomes. Presumably, studying history, literature, and philosophy is important for a voter, a juror, and a community-member. But that also requires some investigation. Is there an empirical link between the humanities and good citizenship? Or is the link intrinsic?

The philosopher Anthony Laden argues that civic engagement is essentially about “engagement,” i.e., genuine dialogue among peers that involves listening and responding as well as mere communication or action. Thus voting does not count as civic engagement unless the voter acts on the results of authentic engagement with other people. The humanities could be defined, in turn, as genuine engagement with other people’s ideas as mediated by words and images. Then the connection between civic engagement and the humanities is definitional, not empirical. The interesting empirical questions might be qualitative, e.g., how many citizens who have studied the humanities actually listen to other people before they vote?

Protagoras argued that the humanities were particularistic and evaluative. They dealt with particular cases, richly described and morally judged, whereas Socrates’ form of philosophy offered broad generalizations. So then the question becomes: should a good citizen generalize, or be primarily attentive to particulars? The social sciences offer methods of generalizing, and they tend to avoid value-judgments. Recently, the Danish theorist Bent Flyvbjerg has taken a very hard line against the social sciences: “No predictive theories have been arrived at in social science, despite centuries of trying. This approach is a wasteful dead-end.” He advocates phronesis, practical wisdom, which is about particulars and is judgmental. Phronesis looks like the political application of the humanities disciplines. On this theory, employing the humanities as phronesis is civic engagement, but the value of civic engagement depends on whether it improves policies and institutions. (Note that this is also an argument for some humanities disciplines and not for others–for history and literary criticism but not for philosophy or literary theory.)

Some see the humanities as sources of moral uplift and challenge. Then they should influence communities by calling citizens to act according to higher values rather than interests and prejudices.

Of course, it is controversial whether communities should aim for higher values. But everything about social outcomes is–and ought to be–controversial. Who says that we should expand the economy? Such topics need deliberation, and the humanities may have a crucial role in teaching people to deliberate.

Note, finally, that merely teaching and studying the humanities shouldn’t count; the point is for students and the public to learn. Unless actual learning goes on, the case is weak.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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