Politics and the Liberal Arts, Part II: How the Humanities Became the Liberal Arts

A funny thing happened on the way to the twenty-first century: the century’s old tradition of the seven liberal arts–the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy)—collapsed.  Under the weight of politics and ideology, the classical wedding of the arts and sciences divorced. The public face of this divorce became the liberal arts and STEM. Last week’s Weekly Read contained a headline from the New York Times, dated February 21, 2016: “A Rising Call to Promote STEM Education and Cut Liberal Arts Funding. The Times headline captures well the terms of the divorce between the arts and sciences: the “liberal arts” has been conflated to the humanities and the sciences now enjoy the sobriquet “STEM.”

Noticeably absent from the Times article is any acknowledgement of the grand historical mystification playing out in the media and politics: what had formerly been a harmonious interdisciplinary union has been re-imagined as a binary opposition, a classic X versus Y dichotomy. This severance of the sciences (now STEM) from the liberal arts seems to have crept upon us since the severe economic downturn of 2008, and despite the profound and troubling nature of this interdisciplinary split, it seems to enjoy widespread, unexamined acceptance. Here is David Skorton, who began his career as a professor of medicine and engineering and later became Cornell’s president, writing in Scientific American  in 2014 (under the title “Why Scientists Should Embrace the Liberal Arts”): “What we really need is a much broader humanistic education for scientists (and nonscientists), beginning in K–12 education and continuing through the undergraduate/graduate and professional years. It is through the study of art, music, literature, history and other humanities and social sciences that we gain a greater understanding of the human condition than biological or physical science alone can provide.”

Skorton’s view is now the norm. In other words, a calculated mystification, this grand severance of the disciplines, has become normalized. A couple of issues arise here. How did this normalization of a false dichotomy between the liberal arts and STEM arise? And what are the consequences of this split?

An answer to the first question begins with the creation of a crisis, in this case the hue and cry sounded by America’s high-tech corporations that there is a STEM shortage: America’s colleges and universities are not producing enough highly skilled graduates to meet the demands of global technological competition. American is losing its competitive edge. It’s Sputnik, Version 2016. The alarm sounded, business-friendly policy makers, state legislators, governors, and even President Obama, take up the call. And here is where the mystification begins. To address the supposed STEM shortage, a classic ideological maneuver is deployed: create a binary opposition, an essentializing dichotomy that (a) has the appearance of the truth and (b) is produced in the fierce urgency of a crisis. Such crisis-inspired binary oppositions have always worked in the past: race, class, and gender have been fertile breeding grounds of useful dichotomies at times of supposed national crisis. Why not apply the same tactic to education? Pit the liberal arts (the “soft,” impractical, competitively obsolete humanities disciplines) against STEM (the “hard,” economically necessary disciplines) and frame this opposition as a necessary strategy to solve a crisis that has global economic consequences.

But what if there is no crisis? Consider another headline, that appeared in the Los Angeles Times five days after the Times article cited above: “A Phony STEM Shortage and the Scandal of Engineering Visas: How American Jobs Get Outsourced.” Michael Hitzik’s piece details how the H-1B visa program, designed to attract foreign workers with advanced degrees and specialized skill-sets to fill niches in the high-tech economy, has been exploited by US high-tech corporations to import low-skilled, poorly paid foreign workers to replace highly paid Americans workers. The jobs being filled by imported workers aren’t in the upper echelons of the high-tech industry (for which the H-1B is designed), but for mid-level jobs that would normally be filled by recent American college graduates. Hitzik addresses the STEM shortage, citing Hal Salzman of Rutgers University: “Evidence is ample that the very claim of a STEM shortage in the U.S. is phony. Salzman noted that ‘overall, our colleges and universities graduate twice the number of STEM graduates as find a job each year.’ The mismatch is especially stark in the biomedical field. There, according to a 2014 paper by experts from UC San Francisco, Harvard and Princeton, ‘the training pipeline produces more scientists than relevant positions in academia, government, and the private sector are capable of absorbing.’”

The exploitation of the H-1B visa program help us understand what has happened to the liberal arts. The motivation for inventing a crisis—the STEM crisis—is simple: cut labor costs to increase corporate profits. By reimagining the liberal arts as essentially the humanities and, hence, useless to America in the face of a global competitive crisis, while promoting the immediate economic value of STEM, corporations and policy makers hope to re-design higher education to create an over-supply of job applicants that will keep wages low. The fake narrative of the STEM crisis demonstrates a powerful nexus between the private sector and the public sector: (a) politicians enable an exploitation of an immigration law and (b) more alarmingly, calls are made to connect funding to economically useful disciplines within the broader context of corporatizing higher education.

All of this comes home to roost locally. The private sector/political nexus has meant a decades long defunding of public education accompanied by the progressive incorporation of corporate values in the administration and governance of colleges. The perilous condition of shared governance, a touchstone of NCC’s reputation for generations, is a direct consequence of the corporatizing trend: wresting control of curriculum from faculty is the best way to make the process of re-designing higher education in a corporate image efficient. Performance-based funding is similar: it sets up a private sector competitive model for judging the “performance” of departments and colleges. Corporate values seem designed to produce measurable “outcomes” and a degree of certainty tied to economic value: a well-designed product (an “educated” student) to meet an economic demand (which may in fact be a based on a false narrative.) An important recent study by Thijs Van Rens should quell any doubt that reforming a curriculum in a corporate-friendly fashion will work: “The implication [of this study] is that an increased emphasis on scarce skills in schools, colleges and universities will not help to reduce the skills gap. Students have a choice about what skills they acquire, and whether they use these skills on the labour market. As long as wages do not reward certain skills, they will either choose not to acquire these skills, or even if they do, they will find employment in other occupations.”

Short-termism, aka, corporate profits, has inspired a myth (a skills shortage) that threatens our mission. Yes, we’re here to help students find gainful employment. But much more fundamentally we’re here to cultivate habits useful to a democracy that happens to be linked to a capitalist economic system. What are those habits? Certainly critical thinking is important. The habit of questioning, the cultivation of doubt is essential to an educated citizenry. You hear an assertion, you doubt its veracity, and you ask for evidence. Think Trump here, and all the clamoring uncritical madness he has inspired. Equally necessary is the habit of empathy: the capacity to imagine and value the validity of other viewpoints and lifestyles. Criticism creates distance, and empathy connection. Finally, there is the habit of inquiry, be it humanistic or scientific (or both at once), the training of curiosity as a habit of discovery. Together, criticism, empathy, and inquiry create the possibility of dialogue and a language of assent and shared norms in a historical moment—as witnessed in perhaps the most divisive presidential in our history—that shows us deeply, deeply divided. Just as important, criticism, empathy, and inquiry—these fruits of the liberal arts—when rigorously cultivated, are necessary to solve problems. And isn’t that really why we’re here: not to raise the profits of a tiny minority of Americans, but to solve problems that will benefit everyone? And isn’t this the mission that should unite us?

In light of these reflections, we urge everyone to end the Board of Trustees meeting on Tuesday October 18th where matters relevant to this essay will be on the agenda.

-Timothy Strode, PhD, NCC AAUP Executive Committee






Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s