The Real Threat to the Humanities

Among the side effects of all the asinine hand-wringing over the phony problem of “scientism” is that it distracts attention from the real threat facing the humanities. I am referring to the corporate mindset that has come to dominate many aspects of higher education.

That threat is on full display in the current fracas at the University of Virginia, where the Board ousted the popular President, basically because she wasn't moving fast enough to gut the humanities. HuffPo has a useful run-down:

Members of the board, steeped in a culture of corporate jargon and buzzy management theories, wanted the school to institute austerity measures and re-engineer its academic offerings around inexpensive, online education, the emails reveal. Led by Rector Helen Dragas, a real estate developer appointed six years ago, the board shared a guiding vision that the university could, and indeed should, be run like a Fortune 500 company.

The controversy, which threatens to seriously damage one of the country's oldest and most prestigious public universities, has implications beyond its own idyllic, academic refuge. For some, it is emblematic of how the cult of corporate expertise and private-sector savvy has corralled the upper reaches of university life, at the expense of academic freedom and “unprofitable” areas of study.

“Unprofitable areas of study” is a euphemism for the humanities. (Classics and German are mentioned specifically elsewhere in the article.)

Skipping ahead:

The rationale for the leadership change is as strange as the secrecy. [Board leaders] Dragas and Kington appear to have built their case against Sullivan from just a few media articles that offer vague praise for the use of Internet technology in higher education, according to the emails.

Dragas displayed particular esteem for a David Brooks column in an email to Kington, in which the New York Times columnist touts the sort of online education initiatives undertaken by the for-profit University of Phoenix. “What happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen to higher education: a rescrambling around the Web,” Brooks wrote.

“Don't dismiss the for-profit colleges and universities, either,” proclaimed John Chubb and Terry Moe in a Wall Street Journal editorial. “Institutions such as the University of Phoenix -- and it is hardly alone -- have embraced technology aggressively.”

Dragas, who sent this article to Kington, included a reminder in one of the emails obtained by the Cavalier that this was, apparently, “Why we can't afford to wait.”

This emphasis on the for-profit education sector has been particularly dismaying to UVA faculty, especially within the context of the budget cuts Dragas reportedly sought in programs including the Classics and German departments. For-profit schools are not well-regarded in the academic community, and have been embroiled in scandals in the past few years for exploitive practices that include recruiting students eligible for federal loans and grants, but graduating fewer than half the enrollees.

And one more excerpt:

The board is not simply more attuned to corporate interests and ideas than those of higher education professionals -- the board quite literally is a cadre of corporate elites.

The 16-member UVA Board of Visitors is appointed by the governor. Former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) named half the current members, and Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) brought on the other half. In addition to Dragas, board members include a coal company magnate, a Wall Street professional, a top lawyer for General Electric, a nursing home executive, a beer distribution entrepreneur, the son of conservative televangelist Pat Robertson and other business elites.

Many are UVA alumni, but only a few have any professional experience in higher education. The UVA board differs sharply in that respect from some other top-notch schools, private and public. Harvard, for instance, features 10 academics.

What Dragas and her supporters do have is money. After accumulating fortunes in the private sector, Dragas and her 15 colleagues showered politicians with cash.

The current slate of board members have given over $2.1 million to Republican and Democratic political endeavors in recent years, according to a HuffPost analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics and the Virginia Public Access Project.

To anyone who takes higher education seriously this is all pretty horrifying. If you have to defend the Classics, or any other academic discipline, on the grounds of profitability or immediate practical usefulness then the battle has already been lost. Profit and practicality are not what college is about. Exactly the opposite, in fact.

Classics professors do not teach about Homer and Virgil because they are confused about the job skills required in corporate America. You don't study great art or great literature because you think it will get you a job someday. You study these things because your life is richer for having done so. You study them in college precisely because you won't learn about them anywhere else. You have the rest of your life to worry about money and practicalities. But there's more to life than being practical, or at least there ought to be.

But the fact remains that universities are desperate for money. In most states, government contributions to public university budgets has been scaled back dramatically. The difference has to be made up from somewhere, even if that means getting involved in scams like “online education.” Increasingly the attitude is that students are customers, and that the university exists not to educate them, but to cater to their whims.

Applying corporate attitudes in college governance is not about making college run smarter or more efficiently. Not at all. It is about killing higher education, and replacing it with something else.


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University of Phoenix, really? I thought the concern was on schools with abysmal graduation rates, courses without substance, and meaningless degrees - in short, schools just like Phoenix.

Apparently when students leave UoP without getting an education it's a function of the market, but with public schools it's the fault of the liberal faculty?

Spot on, Jason - this mindset infects nearly every aspect of our society...

By starskeptic (not verified) on 24 Jun 2012 #permalink

As I said in a comment on Mano Singham's blog, there are allegations that Ms. Dragas has investments in companies that hire out to universities to set up on-line courses. If true, it's a gigantic conflict of interest.

In fairness, I read an article several weeks ago that said that some high schools are using the content of the on-line stuff at the Harvard/MIT to supplement their AP courses so, perhaps, the situation is not totally negative. Of course, there is the question raised by Prof. Larry Moran relative to the biology offerings at the Harvard/MIT site which he has found to contain numerous errors, which should give pause as if prestigious schools like Harvard and MIT can't get it right, what can we expert from lesser institutions?

I think that part of the problem is that the current leadership of the Rethuglican Party doesn't believe in public education and is one with the late and unlamented Milton Friedman who advocated privatizing schools like UC Berkeley and UVA. Considering that the public university education in the US used to be the envy of the rest of the world, I find this attitude repellent.

One of the reasons why the US became the world leader in science and technology was because of this system, which not only educated millions of citizens (including myself) but also attracted the cream of of the rest of the world. However, for the past 35 years, starting with the firing of UC Berkeley president Clark Kerr by Ronnie the rat, we seem to be working overtime to throw it all away in the name of a mindless tea party ideology.

There is another problem specific to UVA, namely in inordinate influence of the business school at that university, known as the Darden School . It should be noted that Ms. Dragas is a graduate of that institution.

From Harper's Magazine:

Consider the remarks of Nicholas Mirzoeff, a professor of media at New York University, who sums up the diminishing returns of the profession on his blog: “I used to say that in academia one at least did very little harm. Now I feel like a pimp for loan sharks.”

The article was about the astronomical costs of college and how both parties have allowed something that is a public good (education) be abused by private parties.

I just want to make a side comment, that in the right context online courses are not the abject evil that some make them out to be. In general, I agree: You simply cannot get the same rich educational experience in an online course that you can in an actual classroom, and if that is the entirety of your college experience, your education will be greatly impoverished.

But not every single class a person takes needs to be a rich educational experience. I had a friend who had nearly finished his degree before dropping out to work, and then later when he wanted to finish up, there were some required courses (but not central to his major) that he was able to check off online, while still going back to school for some of the most important stuff. Ideal? Probably not, but it allowed him to finish his degree, while not having a tremendous impact on the richness of his education (since the classes he did online were mostly ancillary).

Particularly in the sciences, sometimes you just need to take a class to lay the technical groundwork for what comes next. I don't necessarily think students are missing a lot if they complete that kind of work online.

So judiciously incorporating online courses into a traditional college education I think can work, and can be effective at saving money and time while not impacting the educational experience too much. FWIW...

By James Sweet (not verified) on 25 Jun 2012 #permalink

When this blew up, I was surprised to learn that every single board spot is politically appointed. That seems to be a serious problem right there.

On the on-line issue, I'm with James that a good marrying of on-line and face-to-face resources should hopefully be able to improve education, even if the former never replaces the latter (and shouldn't). At the very least, record key lectures and make them available via youtube or something similar, so students have access to them 24/7 as a resource.

I am going to take Jeff to task. Here is my question, which of the sciences would you be referring to? What technical groundwork are you going to get from an online course that will help later.
There certainly are the good survey gen-ed type science courses on line. But if you need a course to give you a technical background for something else, then face-to-face is the only way to go.

Well this is a great post, but pretty much undermines everything we've been hearing about how there is only one way of knowing and that is science, yadda yadda.

By NickMatzke (not verified) on 25 Jun 2012 #permalink

Nick --

Well this is a great post, but pretty much undermines everything we’ve been hearing about how there is only one way of knowing and that is science, yadda yadda.

Since this post has nothing to do with “ways of knowing,” the basis for your comment is unclear to me. I'm glad you liked the post, though.

Maybe Nick is saying that scientism = believing science is a better way of knowing German than German language classes?

If so, there can't be that many scientismists in the world. If you count E.O. Wilson and Alex Rosenberg, there are probably two.

If, OTOH, by scientism we mean something like: applying the methodical, reductionist, empirical methods of science to other disciplines, then arguably languages already do that. They break language down in to grammar, syntax, literature, speech, writing, etc... and address each separately, which is a form of reductionism. They test methods for teaching these things. They observe what works with students and what doesn't, throw out the methods that empirically don't work and refine the ones that do. Et cetera.

I think that's pretty much the sort of argument Jason, Jerry Coyne, etc. are making. That science in the very broad, methodological sense is the best way to learn things. Not that science in the narrow, discipline sense is the best way to learn things. (As an aside, I have to say that this should be patently obvious. Given that Jason is a mathemetician, you'd have to be brain dead to interpret his defense of scientism as referring to the narrow, discipline-specific definition of "science," since that would undermine his own discipline.)

The thing that distrubs me about the whole intstrumentalist mentality with regards to higher education, is that not only does it fail to give proper credence to the value of the humanities, I think it seriously misunderstands a major motivation of scientists.mathematicians etc.. as well. I mean, I doubt not that if you were to ask any scholar whether the value of his subject lies in how well it gets you a job they might get a little indignant. Does anybody doubt that an astrophysicist or a mathematician or linguist or whatever would find the subject they fell in love with to be something worth taking even if it didn't have more practical applications?

I can't remember where, but I read that Steven Weinberg once asked someone(I believe it was a politician) whether the didn't think funding a particle accelerator was a valuable enterprise because it would help find new laws of nature. Guess what the answer was...

By JollyRancher (not verified) on 25 Jun 2012 #permalink

The Privitization of everything public is a powerful force in our country now, even congress and elections.
How did the government change from an extension of us to an evil and overly expensive intruder into our lives?
Anybody read Atlas Shrugged lately? Now there's a subgect that needs to be understood by Liberals.

One of the things missing in this privitaiation of our universities, is the tolerance of testing things even when sellable products are not found. That's how much research ends up, and that's how new, unanticipated knowledge happens if you are educated well enough to notice.

By Michael Bernard (not verified) on 25 Jun 2012 #permalink

Reminds me of the philosophy to learning and technology of the Romans. They really didn't have a lot of respect for arts, culture or abstract thought. Most of what they learned they picked up from other cultures but even this was fairly narrow. If they could build or win wars with an idea they picked it up. When they ran out of nations to conquer they ran out of new ideas and quickly, in a few hundred years, as long as their momentum lasted, went from one of the most highly advanced nations to middling.

Nations surf upon a wave of ideas and basic research they create or adopt and work to mature. Shut down this vital input and it is just a matter of time before your nation falls behind. You can't live off lofty ideas but you can't keep up with other nations without them.


By Deepak Shetty (not verified) on 25 Jun 2012 #permalink

"Anybody read Atlas Shrugged lately?"


It had about as much to do with reality as "The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar".

"If so, there can’t be that many scientismists in the world. If you count E.O. Wilson and Alex Rosenberg, there are probably two."

Does EO Wilson or Alex think that science is a better way to understand German than German?


Well, they aren't scientismists either.

James writes: "judiciously incorporating online courses into a traditional college education I think can work, and can be effective at saving money and time while not impacting the educational experience too much."

I completed agree. I have taken roughly two years of courses at a traditional university and an nearly done with my second year of classes completely online.

I prefer online courses. Studying religion and sociology at the undergraduate level probably isn't that enriched by being face to face. In an online format I've found people are more likely to speak honestly. I have found no difference in the amount of imbeciles enrolled in either setting. When the bulk of the course work is reading and writing/discussing what you read, how does being in the same room really matter?

damn typos... Ironic that I'm defending online education but failed to fully proofread my post. Serves me right for reading blogs at work I guess.

Wow...didn't see that reinstatement coming!!!

By rich lawler (not verified) on 26 Jun 2012 #permalink


Indeed my posted link was a mistake...the old commenting format, as you know, used to have a "website" blank and out of habit I posted my personal webpage in that blank. My mistake. But in my quick comment I was talking about the recent reinstatement of UVA's president, which I believe is relevant to Jason's post.

By rich lawler (not verified) on 26 Jun 2012 #permalink

Well this is a great post, but pretty much undermines everything we’ve been hearing about how there is only one way of knowing and that is science, yadda yadda.

Strawmanning, derailing, and petty sneering all in one pithy sentence. Stay classy, Matzke.

You'll also notice, Dan, that NM was asked several times about "other ways of knowing" and to give an example.

He never could.

Yet somehow he's able to recognise one apparently.

I suppose a more charitable interpretation of NickMatzke would be that "scientism" is equal to a belief that all academic subjects apart from science and math have no value at all.

The only thing coming closest to that, at least in this context, is the privatize-everything crowd, a group which has essentially nothing to do with those accused of scientism (see JollyRancher's post above).

I suppose a more charitable interpretation of NickMatzke would be that “scientism” is equal to a belief that all academic subjects apart from science and math have no value at all.

Watch how charitable Matzke is with people who disagree with him and then decide for yourself whether it's worth being charitable with him.

"'Unprofitable areas of study' is a euphemism for the humanities."

It's also a euphemism for... most science. Universities want people who are going to do research that is profitable to the university. Most research isn't. This isn't a humanities problem, this is a problem throughout all academia.

By aspidoscelis (not verified) on 27 Jun 2012 #permalink


"If you have to defend the Classics, or any other academic discipline, on the grounds of profitability or immediate practical usefulness then the battle has already been lost."

This might be something new to the humanities, but it's already standard operating procedure in research universities when it comes to science. If you're applying to a research position, you are expected to demonstrate to the search committee et al. that you can get grants. It doesn't even matter if you need grants to do your research. It's not about getting your research done. You have to show them that hiring you will be profitable.

Bafflingly, this even applies to some teaching positions. That's right - even if you're hired for a position where your official responsibilities are 100% instructional, you may be expected to do research, unpaid, on the side--and, more importantly, to get grants to fund it.

By aspidoscelis (not verified) on 27 Jun 2012 #permalink

Back before the web was invented I applied to enter a science degree as a mature age student. I was told to go away and come back with a passing grade in HS math. I spent a year doing siad math course by corrospence and then sat and passed the test with all the other HS kids. The universty kept their word and enrolled me the next year.

Online courses are conceptually the same thing, that I can log on to youtube and watch the Feynman lectures is a wonderfull thing. All this enhances the learning experience for the student regardless of whether it's part of a formal course or just a casual interest.

I agree public education should not be run like a corporation, nor should it be self funding. However this has nothing to do with online courses which are all about spreading knowledge and ideas to the widest possible audience, and after all is said and done, that should be the "core bussiness" of any publicly funded educational institution.

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