Re-Branding the Arts and Humanities

This whole rambling train of though started with a Willliam Pannapacker tweet this morning:

His notion of building projects points out that , at the moment, there is little demand for those with graduate degrees in the arts and humanities outside the academy. So why would anyone build the kind of projects to which he refers?  I suggested that, in order for those sorts of projects to be built, we need to re-brand the arts and humanities.  Pannapacker  quite sensibly then asked :

At this point I must confess to being stuck for a good answer.The crux of the problem lies I think in perceived utility, or lack thereof.  Natural sciences are accepted as valuable because natural science research sometime leads to useful techne.  Research in the social sciences contributes to the improvement of societal systems to solve problems.  I don’t see a similar utilitarian endpoint for the arts and humanities.  Instead, we are left with secondary justifications like “exposure to the arts improves mathematical reasoning.”  It is then pointed out that if you want to improve mathematical reasoning and have limited resources, shouldn’t you just focus on math.

The value of the arts and humanities is reliant ,to a great extent, on accepting the premise that knowledge and understanding have intrinsic value.  Pannapacker pointed out that such an idea has long been held suspect here in the USA, reminding me of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.  I will confess to not having read the book, in part because I worry I’ll find it quite depressing. (Disclaimer:  I have undergraduate and graduate degrees in music and French, so I take take pronouncements of the uselessness of the arts and humanities as an implicit questioning of how I spend more than a decade of my life)

I can’t escape the sense that re-branding the arts and humanities almost compels one to make them into a means to some end. If you do that is art still art, or is it instruction or something else in the form of art, akin to a Venus de Milo jello mold?



You can be dismayed, but don’t be surprised

Lisa Lane referred to a Chronicle news item detailing a bill now being considered by the California State Assembly , which would create the “New University of California”, a state entity to award credit and degrees by exam. Lisa ascribes this to (summarizing very broadly) a plutocratic design to keep people uneducated.  I fear she’s right but hope she’s wrong.

Instead, I think that the root of this problem is quite deep and that some of the blame lies with the educational system itself.  Even though we aimed to bring more education to more people in order that we might prepare people for citizenship and membership in society, education was “sold” largely as an economic launch pad.  We did such a good job spreading the message that education is a path to a better job, more pay, and a higher standard of living, that for too many people, including business leaders and legislators, that became all education was about.

If a degree is first and foremost an employment qualification, then it makes sense, from a human capital point of view, that the time and money required to gain that qualification should be minimized.  Especially as the economic benefits of higher ed seem  to diminish relative to its cost, employers, students, and government all embraced the notion that college should happen faster and cost less.

Had existing institutions embraced that notion and things like prior learning assessment and competency based degrees that go with it, they could have ensured that the qualifications at the end of these processes included traditional understandings of what constitutes a well educated person.  Except for a few pioneers, most institutions approached the issue with the caution typical of the academy, and some now see the traditional college/university as part of the problem.

Here is the real danger.  Credential paths separated from the traditions of faculty control over curriculum (the Chronicle headline describes the proposed NUC as “Faculty-Free”) may extend the current focus on employability and earning potential (note the College Scorecard‘s inclusion of graduate salaries, for example).  Isn’t the logical next step to decide that (arts, foreign languages, natural sciences, history, etc.) are needless wastes of time and money? If the credential is only ,or even mostly, about employment, why not let employers decide what’s in it?

My sense is that the entire planet faces challenges that are only increasing in complexity, and that the more people we have who are equipped to think both broadly and deeply about them, the better off we are.  I worry that that is not necessarily a goal of those who now direct higher education policy and priorities.