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A Disturbing Trend

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The search for Brown's next president sparked a heated discussion about the future of our University. Some view President Ruth Simmons' legacy favorably and want her successor, Christina Paxson, to maintain a steady course. Others, however, take issue with the fact that under Simmons' leadership Brown moved away from its traditional emphasis on the liberal arts undergraduate education and instead began to imitate peer institutions by putting more stock in scientific research and connections to industry.

My purpose here is to neither defend nor criticize the restyling of Brown that took place during Simmons' tenure. Rather, I want to look at an issue below the surface of this present debate because I believe the changes spearheaded by Simmons were not isolated occurrences but symptoms of a growing trend among our nation's colleges: the gradual withering away of the humanities and the liberal arts education.

Amid a struggling economy and a ballooning student debt crisis, parents and students are reevaluating the merits of a college education. Is it a wise investment? There is no simple answer, because the return on investment depends on what you study. The increasing pressure on students to secure a high-paying position after graduation has led many to pursue a degree in a field where job prospects are more promising, such as computer science, economics, engineering, biology, chemistry and so on. In other words, the economy discourages students from concentrating in subjects where employment opportunities are more scarce -- namely, the humanities. When President Barack Obama says the United States needs education to stay competitive in the global economy, he is not suggesting that students should take more Gender Studies courses.

A bit of disclosure -- I am a philosophy concentrator myself, so this issue concerns me personally. But, I think all of us believe that an education should be more than just the acquisition of facts and know-how. It should involve developing communication skills, maturing into a well-rounded adult and becoming a creative and critical thinker. These are the fundamental goals of the liberal arts model. Simply put, the aim of studying the humanities is to produce a better human being.

But here's the bombshell: We live in a society ruled by the principles of market logic and commodification, and there is nothing inherent within that system that gives a damn about producing better human beings. Exchange value determines what is important in our world, and the humanities are on the path to extinction because they lack commercial viability.

The reason is simple. Shakespeare scholars do not generate enough revenue to pay for themselves. The products they create -- namely the preservation and extension of Shakespeare scholarship -- are not valuable enough, in a market sense, to stand alone. Teachers of the humanities must be subsidized, because they are incapable of sustaining themselves. If universities like Brown were eliminated tomorrow, for example, academic philosophy would be swiftly eradicated. Without the insulation afforded by institutions of higher learning, many disciplines would be relegated to competing for shelves in Barnes & Noble.

Some of you are grumbling at this point because I have forgotten to mention that degrees in the humanities often do lead to a wide range of employment opportunities. And while it is certainly true that thousands of humanities degree holders find jobs every year, the point I am trying to make is that this is simply a coincidence. Say you concentrated in art history. Maybe you will end up working for Brown's Alumni Relations Association or the Rhode Island School of Design Museum or a high school. That you studied art history is really nothing more than an interesting detail on your resume. What is important to employers is that you have been properly socialized and are a reliable worker. My point remains -- the economic structure of our society fails to recognize, and thereby promote, the inherent value of studying the humanities.

While many of us ostensibly praise the societal and personal benefits of engaging with the humanities, we tolerate a society where such pursuits are actually discouraged because they don't lead to "practical" careers. Of course financial security is not the student's only consideration when choosing a course of study, but we nevertheless systemically disincentivize students from choosing to focus in the humanities.

The current trend of our nation's universities points toward the demise of all forms of education that are neither vocational nor profitable through research. The very underpinnings of the liberal arts education are under severe attack, essentially because they have failed to appreciate the vulnerability of the humanities in a system of unmonitored capitalism.

The debate about the future of Brown and the praiseworthiness of Simmons' legacy is really a minor issue compared with the larger social crisis we face. If we fail to champion a robust enough humanism and cannot overcome the machinations of global laissez faire capitalism, market forces will continue eliminating livelihoods -- including many forms of scholarship -- that do not generate sufficient monetary returns. For those of us who understand that human life is about more than economic productivity and growth, this is an utterly unacceptable course.


Jared Moffat '13 will philosophize for food. He can be reached at
jared_moffat@brown.edu.