"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Paradox of Value in Humanities Education

Readers of this blog know that money comes up a lot. I quit my job as an adjunct because of money, largely (and lack of opportunities for promotion, too, but money was a big part of that). I complain about salary inequities in academe frequently. I weigh the value of the Ph.D. in terms of its potential to get you a decent job both inside and outside academe.

But the paradox of all this complaining -- and the reason, I think, that compels a lot of people to go to graduate school in the humanities despite the economic farce (bordering on tragedy for some) they face upon finishing (or quitting) -- is that you cannot properly assess the value of a humanities education in terms of money. Neither on the scale of the individual nor society.

Consider what Martha Nussbaum suggests as merely a "sketch" in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Among the things the humanities offer are:
  • The ability to imagine well a variety of complex issues affecting the story of a human life as it unfolds: to think about childhood, adolescence, family relationships, illness, death, and much more in a way informed by an understanding of a wide range of human stories, not just aggregate data.
  • The ability to judge political leaders critically, but with an informed and realistic sense of the possibilities available to them.
  • The ability to think about the good of the nation as a whole, not just one's own local group.
  • The ability to see one's own nation, in turn, as a part of a complicated world order in which issues of many kinds require intelligent transnational deliberation for their resolution
None of these things is directly measurable by economic means, neither in terms of investment nor return, because the "product" is impossible to quantify or contain. One of the reasons we like to talk about a college education in terms of an individual's financial "investment" and the "returns" of a "better" job, higher wages, and greater opportunities is that some of the arguably greater benefits to being educated are less easily packaged. Moreover, taxpayers increasingly want to know what they are getting when they subsidize public colleges and universities and student loans, but can you really put a price on the cultivation of imagination, critical thinking, creativity, and emotional literacy? Jonathan Bates writes, of the public value of the humanities,
Government and its officers have a prime duty to account for the expenditure of taxpayers’ money, but in measuring the value of research a much subtler style of accountancy is required. There is something especially inappropriate about the attempt to quantify the ‘value’ and ‘impact’ of work in the humanities in economic terms, since the very nature of the humanities is to address the messy, debatable and unquantifiable but essentially human dimensions of life, such as history, beauty, imagination, faith, truth, goodness, justice and freedom. The only test of a philosophical argument, an historical hypothesis or an aesthetic judgment is time – a long period of time, not the duration of a government spending review.
 Bates is speaking specifically about research, but that's gotten a bad rap by some recently, and, more importantly, the correlation between research and teaching in the humanities is not a small one. The point isn't that every scholarly argument that's published in an obscure journal intended for an audience of peers makes its way into the classroom. The point is that if we are teaching students habits of mind as much -- if not more so -- as we are teaching them content, it's important that we practice what we teach -- that we continue to produce knowledge, continue to inquire, continue to seek.

There is no economic measure for this, but there is also no getting around the cost.

And what do we lose when the seekers can no longer afford to be teachers, when they simply walk away?


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