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The End of the Liberal Arts at Public Universities

[ 73 ] October 11, 2011 |

Allow me to join Paul and Scott in making this a day dedicated to higher education here at LGM.

Rick Scott opens the logical next front in the conservative war on the liberal arts:

Scott said Monday that he hopes to shift more funding to science, technology, engineering and math departments, the so-called “STEM” disciplines. The big losers: Programs like psychology and anthropology and potentially schools like New College in Sarasota that emphasize a liberal arts curriculum.

“If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs,” Scott said. “So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.”

“Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

And in fact, the future of the anthropology department at Florida St. is in doubt, to the extent that it is no longer accepting applications from graduate students and possibly not allowing undergraduate majors as well, but I’m not sure about that point.

Of course, the real issue for Scott and other conservatives is that the liberal arts might teach people to think for themselves. Republicans know they are fighting a war on any part of American society that might create liberals. They have taken over the churches, the airwaves, and television news. There’s not much left–academia and Hollywood. Academics are easy to fight because we don’t fight back very effectively.

And the public believes that liberal arts majors are worthless. With the cost of education rising so rapidly, students and their parents are wary of the liberal arts majors because they want a direct return on their investment. The fact that there’s little evidence suggesting that liberal arts majors are permanently unemployed is besides the point.

We are probably moving toward a day where majors like history and sociology are mostly restricted to liberal arts schools, where the children of the wealthy can major in what they want, knowing that they will always be taken care of. Everyone else will be in what is essentially trade school.

I am by no means confident that tenure will exist when I come up for it in 6 years or that if I get tenure, the University of Rhode Island will have a history department for the rest of my working years. Rhode Island supports higher education much better than many states, but eliminating liberal arts departments is absolutely on the agenda of conservatives. And I don’t see much evidence that conservatives don’t eventually get what they want.

Or maybe I’m just too gosh darn pessimistic.

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Comments (73)

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  1. Marek says:

    The first step has to be to call them something other than the “liberal” arts.

  2. mds says:

    Scott said Monday that he hopes to shift more funding to science, technology, engineering and math departments, the so-called “STEM” disciplines.

    As long as it doesn’t involve stem-cell research, peer-reviewed climate science, evolutionary biology, evidence-based medicine, green technology, or anything else that a semiliterate Republican theocratic dumbshit would even slightly object to.

    I mean, come on, Rick, how much STEM education is really needed to operate a checkout at McDonald’s these days? Wouldn’t it be much more economically productive to share your own tips on how to massively defraud Medicare?

    (I do hope that enough of the “hard science” crowd have finally noticed that modern Republicans hate them, too, because once the liberal arts are destroyed, they’re next.)

    • Bighank53 says:

      Shut the hell up and design another strategic bomber, you hippie.

      That’s pretty much everything the right wing has ever wanted out of STEM. Everything else? You can’t demean and humiliate a robot–what do you think servants are really for?

    • Hanspeter says:

      Biology is a squishy hard science. The vast majority of my colleagues lean liberal, and of the few that are more conservative, the ones actually working in the trenches realize that the current Republicans are destroying the public research infrastructure.

      Unfortunately, there’s a trope that gets repeated frequently that the GOP has been better for the NIH than the Democrats. Which might be true as far as what years the NIH budget gets higher increases, but that was mostly due to Arlen Specter being chair of whatever Senate committee controls the NIH budget.

    • Hogan says:

      I mean, come on, Rick, how much STEM education is really needed to operate a checkout at McDonald’s these days?

      When I grow up I’m going to go to Bovine University!

    • Greco says:

      Or “fruit fly research”.
      Or “volcano monitoring”.
      We could do this all day.

    • JL says:

      “I do hope that enough of the “hard science” crowd have finally noticed that modern Republicans hate them, too…”

      Finally? We noticed this ages ago. :)

      According to the Pew Research Center, only 2% of scientists identify as conservatives, and only 6% identify as Republicans. By contrast, 56% identify as liberals, and 55% as Democrats. Just think if the general population had numbers like that.

    • firefall says:

      Obviously he’ll want plenty of people educated enough to run drug tests, tho

  3. Hanspeter says:

    the real issue for Scott and other conservatives is that the liberal arts might teach people to think for themselves

    Except that any decent science degree teaches you to critically analyze evidence. So he fails there as well. For his goals, he should just make MBAs the only degree available in Florida.

    • Jason Kosnoski says:

      And this is what he and his other liberal-arts hating crew want. Not and increase in funding for theoretical physics, but for pre-professional majors such as business, nursing, physical therapy and communications.

      Much of the discourse in this thread has been pitting the experimental sciences against the liberal arts, but this is not the dynamic being set up by this effort. At many schools, even subjects taught traditionally by liberal arts professors, such as medical and business ethics, are being taught within the pre-professional schools themselves with a decidedly pre-professional slant. Funding usually goes to individual schools and colleges, such as the college of liberal arts vs. the school of business or communication. Initiatives such as this pits the liberal arts vs. the pre-professional schools, with most of the experimental sciences being housed in the former. Scott I’m sure would love to eviscerate the liberal arts divisions from all universities, including both physics and philosophy, both of which teach critical thinking and do not lead to pre-packaged jobs.

      • Linnaeus says:

        This. When folks like Rick Scott talk about “math and science” or “STEM” fields, they’re employing a narrower interpretation of those terms that people here would.

    • DrDick says:

      That and engineers and computer science geeks, who tend more conservative.

  4. wiley says:

    God knows scientists and business people don’t need to study ethics.

  5. Jack says:

    Since the demand for business degrees is high – raise the tuition for those classes.

    • kth says:

      A business degree is everything the right accuses the liberal arts of being: not especially rigorous, and chiefly an indoctrination in the ideology of free enterprise rather than an education.

      • DrDick says:

        Despite rightwing slanders of teachers, among my students over the past 24 years, it has always been the business students who were the underachievers filling the bottom of the grade distribution. They may even be worse than the stoners.

  6. Of course, the real issue for Scott and other conservatives is that the liberal arts might teach people to think for themselves

    I seriously doubt that the anti-liberal artists are thinking “hey, liberal arts teach people to think for themselves….let’s undermine them!”

    Not that I don’t think a lot of conservatives aren’t discomfited by what they perceive, rightly or not, to be “liberal” or “leftist” bias, nor that this discomfiture doesn’t fit into their antipathy toward the liberal arts. But it is important to address their utilitarian arguments (the myth that the hard sciences, etc., create jobs and that the liberal arts prepare people only for thinking for food), even if the arguments are offered in bad faith, because those arguments resonate with a lot of people.

  7. p.a. says:

    Doesn’t Scott know that the science departments are the true vanguard of atheistic humanistic Jeebus questioning?

  8. osceola says:

    The FSU Anthropology Dept. has been slowly getting shoved out for years. I was in Tallahassee three years ago and noticed the Anthro/Arch. Dept. had been moved to a run down strip mall off campus. I don’t know what the story is behind that, but it looks like a slow death for the dept.

    I attended grad school (History) at FSU in the late ’80s, and the Anthro Dept., while small and hardly comparable to the one at UF, was still in the Bellamy Building with all the other social sciences. The dept. chair at the time, Anthony Paredes, was on my MA committee and I had some very interesting individual study with him in ethnohistory. So it’s sad to see this happening.

    • elm says:

      It was moved the strip mall years ago, I believe when Bellamy was being renovated but was never moved back in when the other social sciences returned. The strip mall also contained a comic shop whose name on the mall’s sign was simply “Comics and Games.” This was located directly below the anthro dept’s sign. Thus, drivers passing the strip mall would see that it was the location for the “Florida State University Department of Anthropology, Comics, and Games.”

  9. elm says:

    Though I enjoy a good Rick Scott bashing (and he deserves a lot of it), the decision to kill the anthro department was made long before Scott came to office and had little to nothing to do with state politics. (It’s hard to even blame chronic underfunding, as the department was already being marginalized back when the university budget was more flush.)

  10. Davis X. Machina says:

    You won’t be able to get a BA degree from a land-grant university in twenty years, with the exception of a few brand names. But then you couldn’t get an MSME from the Collège de Montaigu, either. STEM is the scholastic philosophy/theology of the present age —- all-pervading belief system and future meal ticket, all in one.

  11. Pepe says:

    Stop allowing the financialization of student loans, or allow student loans to be discharged in a Chapter 7.

  12. While there is much irony to be mined here, especially when talking about the governor of a state where at least one county wants to stop fluoridating its water, I think you missed a bigger boner in Scott’s statement:

    “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs,” Scott said. “So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.”

    Two things happen here. He starts by stating these majors are more likely to CREATE jobs.

    Maybe there’s data to back up an assertion that a person with a B.S. in chemistry is more likely to CREATE jobs than one with a B.A. in English. I don’t know, just as I don’t know if there’s data that shows a person with a hard science major is likely to create jobs in the state where he receives his degree. However, I doubt Scott knows either, so we’re even in that regard.

    But then he switches verbs (from create to get), while still leaving pretty much the same questions begging. What’s the demand in Florida for recent graduates with hard science majors and how many of these graduates stay in the state?

    • mpowell says:

      Eh, there’s something to be said for the idea that if you have people with valuable skill sets in a metro area, there is an improved chance of businesses being grown or located in that area that utilize that skill set. Not that this really applies here.

      The real problem is that we need more doctors and nobody is talking about how we’re going to address that issue.

  13. J. Otto Pohl says:

    Well I think American academia pretty much has only its self to blame for its demise in the US. They could have done things a lot better. But, fortunately there are other countries in the world. So liberal arts are not going to die. They are flourishing in Ghana, China, and other countries with growing economies.

    Also the end of tenure is not the end of the world. We don’t have tenure where I work, but we do have a very strong union and long term contracts for everybody. There are no adjuncts. That seems like a much better system than tenure for a few ageing elite and army of adjuncts. But, then again as I said American academia largely did this damage to themselves.

  14. Linnaeus says:

    One thing that I find interesting about this is the apparent shift in right-wing attitudes about the liberal arts that’s happened over the past 50 years or so. The Old Right types that were the main voices of conservatism in the 1950s and early 1960s tended to defend the education in the liberal arts as a bulwark against liberalism and socialism. They saw greater emphasis on science and engineering as a leftist tendency to emphasize 1) material things and 2) planning & control of society.

    I’m perhaps overgeneralizing a bit here, but I think it’s true that you’d be much more likely to read a conservative defending the social virtues of poetry in 1956 than you would in 2011.

    • CJColucci says:

      That’s my recollection, too. But anyone old enough to remember that is probably too old to rely on memory.

    • Njorl says:

      True, but that was also when you were expected to know Latin and Greek. You won’t find much socialism or equal rights for women and minorities written in Latin or Greek. Well, there’s the socialism in the Bible, but we’ve all learned that god was only kidding about that.

  15. Lee says:

    During the reign of Nicholas I of Russia, the higher levels of the Russian education system were redeseigned to focus more on scientific and technical subjects. He thought that his subjects wouldn’t learn about dangerous liberal ideas like representative government and civil liberties with a more scientifically inclined educational system. Rick Perry seems to be following the same idea.

    Ladies and gentleman, I present to you Rick Perry, the next Tsar of All the Americas.

    Also, its pretty funny that a conservative Christian candidate is fighting for a science based education.

  16. burritoboy says:

    Linnaeus,

    What we currently call conservatives in 2011 is not what conservatives were in 1950. More properly, there were many different types of conservatives in 1950, and what we now call conservatives were at that time either regarded as declasse rural idiots or not as conservatives at all.

    For example, large numbers of 1950s conservatives were mainline Protestants. Fundamentalist evangelicals were both much fewer in number and were regarded as declasse idiots. Libertarians in 1950 were openly anti-religion. Most conservatives of the time did not think libertarians were conservatives at all. Catholic conservatives did not like or trust mainline Protestant conservatives and vice-versa.

    The conservatives of 1950 were much more based upon traditional religions (not evangelical fundamentalism, which is inherently anti-conservative). And those traditional religions – particularly High Church Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism, as well as Presbyterianism – were based upon highly sophisticated theologies and narratives. You need a very thorough liberal arts training to be able to understand those theologies. For example, you needed to be able to read Latin at a minimum. You needed to be able to at least sort of handle basic philosophical arguments. You don’t need either in evangelical fundamentalism, and really you don’t need any knowledge whatsoever in evangelical fundamentalism.

    So:

    1. Shifting from sophisticated theology to stupid theology (evangelical fundamentalism) undermined conservative support for liberal arts.

    2. When the Chicago school of economics took over economics academe in the 1960s/1970s, conservatives began to be much more interested in using economics to conquer academia, rather than in emphasizing liberal arts. Conservatives didn’t like economics before then, because the economists were primarily Keynesians.

    3. It became clear that electoral success based upon merging stupid theology (evangelical fundamentalism) with a vulgarized form of Chicago School of economics was the route to power and to a unified conservative movement. With that combo, you got a hard core of people who would religiously support the most extreme forms of capitalism – i.e., a group of people who support capitalism more than even the capitalists do. The previous conservatives were more diverse and heterodox and less reliable (lots of the religious conservatives were openly opposed to capitalism for instance).

    • wiley says:

      “Knowledge = Sin in fundamentalism. It’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Snaky, I tellz ya.

    • Linnaeus says:

      Yes, that’s true of course – that’s what I was hinting at when I mentioned the “Old Right” types that were predominant in American conservatism prior to the early 1980s, though their predominance was on the decline for some time before that.

      You point out what the main challenge was for conservatism in the immediate postwar period: bringing together its various factions (what some at the time called “fusionism”). The business wing of American conservatism tended to rely on technical expertise more the the cultural wing (for lack of a better term) and when a certain school of economics became a kind of fighting ideology for conservatism, the priorities of the business wing rose along with that.

  17. Subnumine says:

    Why are you quoting an attack on the social and observational sciences as an attack on the liberal arts?

    They should stick together, where our domestic enemies have not killed one or the other of them; presumably Scott has already shot the poetry and music classes. But they are not the same thing.

  18. Ken Houghton says:

    “the future of the anthropology department at Florida St. is in doubt, to the extent that it is no longer accepting applications from graduate students and possibly not allowing undergraduate majors as well, but I’m not sure about that point.”

    That’s sad. I can still remember Marvin Harris leaving the Ivies–well, Columbia, just before BarryO arrived–to join the University of Florida.

    I guess the Seminoles are tired of losing everything to Florida, so they’re just quitting.

  19. kth says:

    Anthropological study in Florida could conceivably retreat to the history department (not the same, but Gov Scott is never going to eliminate the history department). The real danger is not that the social sciences are eliminated, but yoked to right-wing political ends: the Koch family will be glad to endow chairs in sociology and psychology (as they already do at FSU in economics), provided those chairs are devoted mainly to the study of how to control poor, hungry people here and abroad.

  20. Bill Murray says:

    It’s funny that one of the major trends coming in STEM education (especially the engineering part) is to incorporate more of the humanities and social sciences to help engineers and the public in general better understand the social context of engineering

    http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=10999

  21. Curmudgeon says:

    If you want to argue the worth of an arts degree, lack of mass, permanent, unemployment among BA (etc) holders is the wrong bar to clear. People without degrees generally avoid permanent unemployment. At best, discovering a lack of permanent unemployment among BA holders demonstrates only that BA degrees do not make the holder unemployable. Such a finding would not, however, demonstrate that a BA has any positive value.

    In order to demonstrate the value of a BA, you must demonstrate that BA degree holders earn more than people without degrees and that the earnings differential exceeds the cost of a degree. This would likely be a very easy case to demonstrate, but you must first start from the correct hypothesis.

    Around here, this stuff is taught in second-year research methods courses.

    • ckc (not kc) says:

      In order to demonstrate the value of a BA, you must demonstrate that BA degree holders earn more than people without degrees and that the earnings differential exceeds the cost of a degree.
      …this stuff is taught in second-year research methods courses.

      sadly, yes

    • DrDick says:

      I do not have a cite right now, but unemployment for those with a BA is currently about 4-5%, while it is over 9% for those without a degree. That statistic meets your criteria for value. I seriously doubt that a lot of those jobs really require a BA, but the degree gets them the job.

  22. Waingro says:

    “And the public believes that liberal arts majors are worthless. With the cost of education rising so rapidly, students and their parents are wary of the liberal arts majors because they want a direct return on their investment. The fact that there’s little evidence suggesting that liberal arts majors are permanently unemployed is besides the point.”

    I understand what you’re saying, but speaking as someone with a liberal arts degree that hasn’t exactly been remunerative I sometimes get furious when academics say things like ‘college is not vocational training, der der der’. They’re not wrong, they’re just being dense assholes ignoring opportunity cost and uh… regular cost.

    If college were free or extremely cheap, it would be another matter. In the shitty real world, it’s extremely expensive and saddles people with non-discharcheable debt that limits their life choices. If someone has a history degree with no debt and works in a call center, then its not the greatest tragedy. If the same person has 30k in loans, believing their degree was worthless (i.e. not worth the time and cost given the returns) is not exactly false consciousness.

    Which is all a long-winded way of saying that college must be made cheaper.

    • DrDick says:

      Quit electing Republicans to the legislature and push candidates that support restoring funding to higher ed. Much or most of the rising cost at public schools is declining state support.

      • delagar says:

        Exactly. When I was a pup, not that fucking long ago (1980s), I went to a state school and the state paid nearly all my tuition. I graduated debt-free in 1986, and only had summer jobs. Impossible to do that these days. What changed? Thirty years of Right-Wing economic rule.

  23. Eli Rabett says:

    Psych and anthro are sciences. Scott is stupid

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  26. justaguy says:

    As someone who is studying post-socialism in the University of California, I’ve noticed that the UC budget system is arranged like a socialist state – where money and resources are remitted to the central bureaucracy and allocated based on work units’ abilities to ingratiate themselves to the bureaucracy – not their ability to generate profits. On my campus (UCSC) the majority of revenues are raised by tuition and state aid which is doled out on a per-student basis. The majority of students are in the social sciences in humanities – and the cost of instruction is vastly lower than on the hard sciences/engineering side of campus. Anyone wanting to let the market run the university would be placing more emphasis on the social sciences and humanities, not less. (Oddly, all college administrators I know come from the hard sciences. Prolly a coincidence.)

  27. Dirk Gently says:

    The problem is that it’s probably fair to say that we’re continually unable to parse the difference between a liberal arts degree granting someone the ability to find a job IN THEIR FIELD, versus being capable of finding/creating jobs in the broader sense.

    I do think some of this is just reaction against the academy and “lefty” liberal arts subjects, but a lot of it is also that they are literally unable to identify the value of, say, majoring in African-American Studies or Literature. And while it’s sadly true that getting a job based on those specific qualifications is nigh impossible, the whole POINT of that kind of undertaking (especially at an undergraduate level) is being able to develop critical and communications skills that are applicable to LOTS of different jobs in which those subjects per se will never, ever come up.

    In fairness, as has been covered on this blog (especially concerning getting a J.D.), it is a really stupid idea to get a graduate degree in the liberal arts or social sciences unless one already has a job in one’s preferred field–at least, until universities are fully funded, all the Boomers die off, and there is some recognition of the utility and applicability of social sciences and humanities research to (and by) the world at large.

    • Linnaeus says:

      The problem is that it’s probably fair to say that we’re continually unable to parse the difference between a liberal arts degree granting someone the ability to find a job IN THEIR FIELD, versus being capable of finding/creating jobs in the broader sense.

      I’m glad you brought this up; people do find jobs that don’t precisely match the field that they studied, particularly what they studied as an undergraduate, but that doesn’t mean that what they studied had no value at in terms of finding and doing those jobs.

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