Politics and the Liberal Arts

Weekly Read

10 October 2016


Earlier this year The New York Times ran a piece on a trend in the funding of public higher education: promoting STEM education at the expense of the liberal arts. Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin (a Republican), the Times reports, who majored in Japanese and East Asian Studies at Washington and Lee University, argued before a joint legislative session in January that students majoring in French literature should not receive state funding for their degree.  Pat McCrory, governor of North Carolina, voiced similar sentiments a few year earlier during a radio interview: “I’m looking at legislation right now which would change the basic formula in how education money is given out to our universities and community colleges. It’s not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs.” This sophisticated “butts get jobs” reasoning is the basis of performance-based funding, the funding theory that is the darling of legislators around the nation. Governor Rick Scott of Florida is perhaps the most vociferous of proponent of those promoting the defunding of the liberal arts: “You know we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in this state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on. Those type of degrees. So when they get out of school they can get a job.” McCrory, a staunch defender of the HB2 “bathroom bill” that discriminates against LGBTA citizens of his state, was especially critical of gender studies: “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” So says McCrory, who majored in political science at Catawba College, a liberal arts college Salisbury, NC.

Is it stating the obvious to point out that McCrory’s and Bevin’s funding theories are deeply hypocritical, that the liberal arts educations that led them to high-flying careers in politics will be available only to the richer citizens of their states? Is it stating the obvious to note that McCrory’s aw-shucks denigration of gender studies suggests that he really would prefer it if the citizens of his state lacked the sociological and political knowledge—i.e. the critical thinking skills–that would find fault with his administration’s discriminatory legislation? And it isn’t it wonderfully ironic that Governor McCrory, who is promoting these supposedly business-friendly higher education funding formulas, is facing a huge economic backlash for HB2? (And as a critical aside, has anyone noticed that the STEM versus liberal arts debate itself is gendered, that the former is labeled “hard” while the latter is “soft”?)

Aside from the glaring class-based hypocrisy and the somewhat subtler gender biases of those supporting the “butts get jobs” theory of public higher education funding, the real motive for cutting the liberal arts is garden-variety neo-liberalism, which returned with epic fervor following the 2008 Great Recession—a recession caused, incidentally, by neo-liberal inspired deregulation of the finance industry. The neo-liberal “butts get jobs” view is meant to be market-based and business-friendly, all the while promoting the ideology—to nervous parents and debt-ridden students—that a getting a job and being a worker are the chief ends of living in a democracy and being a citizen: at least for those earning a degree in a public college or university. If you are rich, well, the fruits of democracy—freedom, happiness, and prosperity—are still there for you.  And to help maintain this class-based access to the promise of democracy, we certainly don’t need a rising generation of the poor or middle class who can think critically and ask: Who is this government for? Who is it serving?

Perhaps the tide is turning. A recent article in that organ of all things business, The Wall Street Journal, has this surprising title: “Good New Liberal-Arts Majors: Your Peers Probably Won’t Outearn You Forever.” The article profiles Andy Anderegg, an English major with an MFA (Oh My God, the fine arts!!!) from the University of Kansas, whose first job at Groupon paid her $33,000. Four years later she had become a managing editor at the same company for over $100,000. She has since moved on to a new job at Soda Media, an executive editor position paying more than she made at Groupon. Ms. Anderegg’s story follows a plot-line that’s becoming much more familiar: first-time jobs may pay little for liberal arts grads, but young people with these degrees are able to leverage their creativity and critical thinking into high pay and rewarding jobs. Here’s the Journal on this trend: “Once people reach the peak earnings ages of 56 to 60, liberal arts majors are earning an average of $66,185 the [Association of American Colleges & Universities] found. That’s about 3% ahead of the earnings pace for people with degrees in vocational fields such as nursing and accounting.” It turns out that businesses want people with liberal arts training. The Journal points out that among the traits on an applicant’s CV, businesses ranked technical skills in 10th place, while four of the top five traits were those furnished by a liberal arts education: teamwork, clear writing, problem-solving aptitude, and strong oral communication skills. Just as interesting is data about ultra-high earners: the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project found that philosophy and history majors outpaced computer science earners: ($3.46 million and $3.75 versus $3.2 million lifetime earning respectively).

One lesson: if you base higher education funding on statistics for the first job out of college, you are depriving publicly educated college students of a shot at prosperity. You degrade the dreams of millions of students. Another lesson: You demean and discredit democracy itself.

Tim Strode, PhD NCC/AAUP Executive Committee




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