01 December 2010

Academia: Budget Cuts

Stephen Kershnar
The Humanities and the Budget Axe: No Immunity
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 29, 2010

The morning after the state spent like a drunken sailor is beginning to dawn. In the State University of New York (SUNY) system, academic departments are being cut. Some of these cuts raise the issue of whether the state should go after humanities programs. While the boundaries are not always clear, the following are sometimes grouped as humanities: classics, English, history, languages, philosophy, and the arts (for example, theater, music, and painting). As with many spending issues, the issue here is priorities, so the arguments are really about how much the state should spend on humanities rather than on other things. Full disclosure: I’m a humanities professor at a state college.

With the exception of the public parts of Cornell University, SUNY-Geneseo has the smartest students in the SUNY system. Geneseo is cutting three academic programs: computer science, communicative disorders and sciences, and studio art as part of its effort to close a $7.2 million deficit. SUNY-New Paltz (2nd smartest students among SUNY-Colleges) is cutting its nursing program as part of a $6 million deficit-reduction plan. For similar reasons, SUNY-Albany is cutting its French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theater departments. SUNY-Fredonia, which has roughly the 6th smartest students among SUNY colleges, is also considering cuts.

There are three main arguments against states cutting or eliminating humanities programs. First, humanities programs make society better off. Second, they pay for themselves and, in fact, subsidize other fields. Third, they are part of a university’s core mission. Let us consider them in turn.

The first argument is that the humanities teach the best of what has been thought and said and in so doing, make society better off. The idea is that having students learn about Plato, Aristotle, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Locke, and Mozart makes the students’ lives go better and benefits society as a whole. Public intellectual and former Duke University professor Stanley Fish points out that the general education requirements at most universities, including Albany, are satisfied by many courses in a diverse array of disciplines. As a result, students are not required to study these intellectual giants and many never do. This is true even at elite universities, such as Yale, Brown, Cornell, Amherst, and Berkeley. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni recently faulted them for not requiring courses in specific fields (for example, math and history), let alone particular courses.

As far as I can tell, there is not much empirical evidence that reading and discussing these intellectual giants makes individuals’ lives go better or improves society. Perhaps there is a study showing this, but I haven’t found it. In one literature summary by Oxford University psychologist Michael Argyle, greater education is correlated with greater happiness, but he notes that is mainly because it affects income and occupational status. On some accounts, happiness is not the only factor related to how well someone’s life goes.

Even if thinking about the giants were to make people’s lives go better or improve society, we’d still need an argument that spending state money on it via college programs contributes more than other uses of the money. For example, it is unclear whether the money would be better spent on medical care for the poor, K-12 programs for the gifted, or more firefighters. Even if the state money were confined to higher education, it is unclear whether the money would be better spent reducing tuition increases, offering more and better classes in engineering, physics, and medicine, and so on. Perhaps it might even be spent on promoting some of these giants (for example, Shakespeare and Mozart) by subsidizing performances that are open to the public.

The second argument is that that humanities departments pay for themselves. University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) English professor Robert Watson cites various studies at UCLA, University of Washington, and University of Illinois that the humanities departments generate profits by taking in more in tuition money than they cost. University of California at Santa Barbara English professor Christopher Newfield not only claims they make a profit, but that their profits subsidize more expensive fields, such as science, engineering, and medicine. Fish counters that this misunderstands the economics of higher education. He argues that no matter how popular humanities courses are, they still don’t cover their full costs, which is why they still need state subsidies, albeit less than some other fields. The success of this argument depends on which side is right. I don’t know the answer.

The third argument, which comes from Fish, argues that the essential purpose of a university includes teaching and researching in the humanities. Hence, if we value universities, we must value the humanities. This argument fails. One can imagine universities that do not offer courses or do research in the humanities. For example, were the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to dump all of its humanities programs, it would still seem to be a university. Even if Fish were right about the essence of a university, it still doesn’t follow that the university should be located at each school rather than the system of schools. For example, were SUNY-Geneseo to lack studio art, SUNY-Brockport to lack philosophy, and SUNY-New Paltz to lack theater, the system as a whole might still be a university. In addition, students could choose colleges in part based on what they wanted to study, although not every college would offer every field or, perhaps, merely not a major in every field.

The positive argument for the state reducing or cutting humanities programs in tough financial times is that they contribute less to a state’s economic success than other majors. Graduates in many engineering fields, physics, and computer science average roughly $100,000 in mid-career pay. In contrast, various humanities field average considerably less: history and philosophy (roughly $73,000), drama and English (roughly, $68,000), and French and theater (roughly, $60,000). One problem with this argument is that other factors might explain the salary differences. At least one analysis indicates that science and engineering majors have a higher IQ than humanities majors.

Columbia University professor John McWhorter suggests that some of the money spent on humanities could be better spent on vocational tracks. One way to understand this is that the citizens of a state would get more economic benefit from young people with skills in plumbing and electrical equipment than in French and playing the bassoon.

None of this shows that the humanities programs should be cut or eliminated. What it does show is that in times of crushing taxes and crippling deficits, the arguments for privileging humanities programs over other parts of academia or the state budget are at best incomplete. The humanities are fun, rewarding, and important, but this is no reason to hide them from the budget axe.