a clear and present danger: the humanities

The US government currently has a debt of over $9.2 trillion dollars. In every measure of economic growth the US lags behind Europe and the emerging economic superpowers of India and China. At the same time, over $90 billion dollars will be spent in 2008 on financial aid. At least some of that money will go to pay for financial aid to students of the humanities, some probably at very expensive private schools. The economic policy of the United States encourages students to study any subject they wish, with no view to the ultimate goal – a return to society on its investment in the education of its citizens.

The increasingly dire economic situation in the US means it is time for action. The economic crisis is due in large part to spending on a war that, whether you support it or not, has far outstripped even the most wildly pessimistic initial estimates of its cost. It is also due to a lack of financial education in our citizenry that led thousands if not millions of people to believe that buying a house with a million dollar mortgage on a salary of $80,000 per year was not only possible but advisable. Many of these people would have benefited from government-subsidized finance or accounting college educations.

The average salary for a college graduate with a degree in English is about $30,000. The average salary for a college graduate with a degree in engineering can start at $68,000. Who is more likely to pay off a $40,000 student loan? Of course it depends on the individual, but the simple fact is that there should be some effort on the part of the government to encourage people to use financial aid to obtain degrees that result in higher-paying jobs; an employee who is paid more contributes more to the coffers of our nation in terms of taxes, productivity and usefulness of their output. The engine of our corporate economy is driven by the technical professions. Poetry will not win the war in Iraq.

In addition, the government should eliminate all financial aid for people who take more than 4 years to obtain a degree. They are delaying their entry into the workforce and thereby delaying repayment of their aid. They drain resources and attention away from the more capable and efficient students.

For these two reasons, the government must redirect financial aid to students who make the choice to (a) graduate as quickly as possible and (b) study science or engineering or math with the goal of obtaining a job with the maximum possible salary.

To me it becomes a question of subsidizing those professions that will help the United States remain the technological and scientific leader of the world. Private schools that value the humanities can dip into their endowments to reduce tuition for people who want to study linguistics, but as a taxpayer I want to see our nation’s universities churning out graduates who will get high-paying jobs and share the burden of high taxes with me.

The sole purpose of a university’s financial aid programs should be to churn out better, higher-paid employees (or better soldiers or technological innovators). There is no room for the pursuit of “thinking” in our schools. Those days are done.

(note: I am being sarcastic – I don’t actually think this at all)

(photo inflicted by Boris from Vienna)

33 Replies to “a clear and present danger: the humanities”

  1. As an employee of one of those very expensive private schools, there is the occasional moment when I’d like to tell my students some of these things in all seriousness, because I get fed up with their unique brand of…well, Ivy League whininess.

    However (comma) I am also fully aware of the fact that many of them will quite literally go on to change our world…and the moment passes. Thanks for the entertainment (but like David, you had me, too!)

  2. Hmmm..you had me too – and I was all ready to agree with you.

    Good thing I can still read the small print!

    I’d like to point out that science or engineering or math does not entail “not thinking” which you imply. I also don’t have a problem with limiting financial assistance to someone who is taking an extraordinarily long time finishing their degree.

    Looks like I ended up commenting on it anyways.. 🙂


  3. I was confused. Good job on the sarcasm there. 😉

    Micah’s very passionate about his career in philosophy (as a prof) because he’s hoping to teach it to the masses. He wants the people with engineering degrees and whatnot to know what they think and why (not necessarily to change it, but to understand it). Among other things, they’ll be the people making the bombs, so it’s good if they think clearly. 😉

  4. @FourPillars: Mike – I had to pick on some sort of subjects to make my point. I was a math major in college so I certainly wouldn’t say it is a “non-thinking” subject. Sometimes the sciences/engineering etc. are perceived that way, but really any serious academic pursuit involves serious thinking, regardless of whether it’s French poetry or nuclear physics.

    @David: Wish I could have seen the angry comment 🙂

    @Lisa: I’m sure that thought crosses all of our minds. I originally started the post with somewhat of the mindset you’re suggesting, but I quickly realized how silly it sounded. There’s no reason to believe an engineer is automatically going to bring more value to the world than a history major. It’s all in the individual and what they do with whatever gifts they feel they’ve been given – they can squander or they can succeed, but it’s more about the individual than the major.

    @Mrs. Micah: My dad was a philosophy PhD, too, (even though he eventually ended up working in computer science – lots of AI type stuff) so I certainly can imagine Mr. Micah’s mindset without much of a stretch! And similar to what I said about Lisa’s comments, there will be good engineers and bad, good philosophers and bad. The important thing is to be happy with what you study, and if Mr. Micah is, doubleplusgood for him!

  5. The sarcasm brings up some valid points, however. I studied Philosophy and Communications in college. Then I got a Masters in Writing. Shortly after that I got interested in finance and read up on it, teaching myself a lot of the basics. Then the more advanced stuff. Then I got a job in the financial industry, which I didn’t think was possible without a degree of some sort. It’s a unique situation, for sure, but I think the PF Blog world has proven that you don’t need a degree to know your stuff when it comes to finance and investing.

  6. Can’t say for any other state, but NY state doesn’t provide financial aid for longer than 4 years of traditional college, if you qualify for one. Since I had to take ESL class my first semester, it took me 4.5 years to graduate and the financial aid ran out. So the last semester tuition came out of my own pocket.

    p.s. you had me too, I was thinkging “what is he talking about? it doesn’t sound like Steve at all!” thankfully I read the very fine print ;o)

  7. Ireland has a similar approach, Bubelah – your primary degree is paid for by the government, but if you fail a year and have to repeat it, or want a second bachelors degree or a masters it comes out of your pocket. Makes sense to me.

    You’re going to have dozens of english degree holders flocking here shortly all outraged and defensive, Steve. Always entertaining.

  8. Wow, I didn’t even see the sarcasm remark in my reader when I first read through it. I usually like and agree with your articles so I was a bit shocked.

    Every effort should be made by the government to help people get a college degree. Doesn’t matter in what. Alan Greenspan was a Music major I heard. Mick Jagger studied economics/business I believe. Imagine if they stuck to those careers (it would have made the Fed more fun perhaps)?

    The reason other countries like India and China are growing so quickly is in part because of their university systems. If we invest more in education we will be investing in our economic stability in the future.

  9. I spent several years in a tenure track position in math/cs at a liberal arts college, and was regularly belittled and at the bottom of the budget for having the temerity to teach something practical. I think your plan is a winner, Steve. 🙂 (well, I also have two degrees in the social sciences, so maybe not that much of a winner)

  10. Every effort should be made by the government to help people get a college degree.

    Why? So that every single burger flipper has a degree?

    I think education is great but the more everyone has, the less the returns are.


  11. Steve, I have to admit that you really made me think. I saw the sarcasm note as I was waiting for comments to load. And I was all ready to commend you for taking a stand… although I can think of a thousand reasons why it wouldn’t work. I would certainly agree that federal funds should be linked to gpa and there should be a limit.

  12. @Cindy S: I’m sure there are bits and pieces out of what I wrote that made sense, actually. Like Guiness416 and Bubelah mentioned, there are cutoffs for people who take too long to graduate and there should be for people whose grades fall too low. And I do think attending public universities should be encouraged, since they are (theoretically at least) returning some of that aid to the states’ budgets.

  13. @Curmudgeon: I spent a year in math PhD school and all I can say is that anyone who belittles math as being “too practical” never sat in on my chaos theory classes (I was studying pure math rather than applied math) – talk about impracticality (although yes I am sure they are going to discover warp drives eventually using chaos theory, etc.).

  14. @PaidTwice and FFB: Argh! ALMOST gotcha. I suspect Mick Jagger might have done a better job with the economy than Alan “Bubbles” Greenspan, frankly.

  15. @Writer’s Coin: I certainly don’t think that a degree is actually all that useful in finance because other than needing a good basic understanding of the subject it’s such a fluid and everchanging field it’s tough to say you’ve “finished learning finance.” I took a year of corporate tax law in 1993. Think that’s worth much today? Even my accounting courses have been largely superseded by new pronouncements, etc. College is for laying a foundation – if you stop learning after you leave college you are doomed to the dustbins of the job world.

  16. Ironically, Steve, Micah has a BA in Computer Science. So I guess he went the other way from your dad—though they’re both interested in AI and such. 🙂

  17. @ Four Pillars – I don’t think degrees should be given out to anyone that wants one. But if someone genuinely wants to earn one they should be able to. It used to be that a high school diploma meant a lot. Then it was a college degree. Now an advanced degree is needed in a lot of fields. The better educated our country is the more productive we will be and the better for our economy.

    @ Steve – Mick may have done better with the economy but Greenspan wouldn’t be able to pull off the tight pants!

  18. This tack has actually been taken by a number of European governments. The problem is that higher education does not make people smart or more intelligent. Rather it serves as a function of a) separating the rich parents’ kids from the poor parents’ kids b) getting money from students to fund the university sports center + a bunch of professors who are researching increasingly irrelevant subjects c) regulating entry to the job market. The more young people there are demographically speaking the higher the degree is required.

    I think the idea that education leads to a more productive society is wrong. Hard work and intelligence leads to productivity. What happens when we send 70% to college instead of 30% is simply that the levels are dumped down. To keep getting the cream of the crop education is extended for the smarter part (the 30%). The other 40% get a degree that no longer means a lot. So it is not increased education that leads to more productivity. Rather it is increasing productivity that leads to the country being able to afford parking their young in essentially unproductive endeavors for increasing amounts of time.

  19. I think I agree with it more as a non-sarcastic article than as a sarcastic one! Though taken at face value it is obviously too extreme, the notion that (nearly) everyone should go to college and study something is a little silly to my mind.

    I think there is a lot of waste in the college system, and I’ve seen first hand people waste years of their lives dilly dallying through generals on student loans with no purpose… Not really getting a true education, but just delaying being a productive member of the world.

  20. Oh also, there ARE cutoffs on federal aid if your grades fall too low.

    But then students typically just go get private loans…. Ug.

  21. I mostly agree with the article, sans sarcasm. The reason tuition has ballooned like it has is largely because of government subsidies. Schools will do anything they can to absorb the billions of dollars being passed out every year by Uncle Sam – which means continually raising tuition to put it out of the reach of most Americans.

    So while I think some of these govn subsidies are totally justifiable, there should be limits, not the least of which should include graduating in a timely manner and maintaining good grades. And schools whose tuition is paid mostly by govn aid should be held accountable and regulated as to how they use their tuition dollars and how often they raise tuition.

  22. And I am TOTALLY for the government offering more aid and cheaper aid to those willing to obtain a degree in math, engineering, the sciences, or computer technology. Not just so those people can have higher salaries, pay more taxes, and be more likely to pay back their loans, but because this country needs to stay competitive in those fields – and we aren’t.

  23. Hm, I find it quite interesting that several people found it a better post non-sarcastically than sarcastically! Just goes to show you – different strokes for different folks.

    Actually I’m sure there’s some value to some of the sarcastic points I made, but I still feel that there is some intrinsic value in something like a French major. I think that if the US encourages comp sci or engineering, great – but I don’t think we need to be so draconian to assume that music education, for example, is worthless and doesn’t deserve at least some subsidizing.

    I guess it’s a point that can be argued either way!

  24. I dunno. At the end of the day, it’s only money. If we’re really so concerned, I imagine the war in Iraq, the subsidies to McDonalds and agriculture, and foreign aid to Israel might be better places to consider cutting back.
    Education, in any form, is a proven means of lifting people out of poverty… Working at McDs isn’t (and the only one benefiting there is McDs – and how!).

    And actually, as someone who bridges the “divide” between the hard sciences and the humanities – I wish MORE doctors, engineers and financiers had training in ethics and sociology!

    Anyway – very thought-provoking, if sarcastic. 🙂

    In an ironic way, Steve, some of your commenters sort of prove why education in the humanities is a necessary thing (particularly ethics and history)… Eugenics anyone? 😉

    1. @deepali: Well, yes, there are a million places the US could cut back. I would actually like to see education made easily available… to anyone who meets basic requirements (grades, test scores, writing a strong essay, whatever – just something). And I would agree that education is a means to lifting people out of poverty but a big pet peeve of mine is to point out that it is not a COLLEGE education only that does that. Education can come from community colleges, trade schools, seminars, etc. The US subsidizes college education but won’t give you a loan to attend a “get out of debt” workshop.

      And I certainly think education in the humanities is critical for anyone – I keep my education up to this day through the boring old-fashioned method of reading classic literature and history and philosophy – sans tuition!

  25. Look at the article non-sarcastically:

    From a pure economics standpoint, if more people goes into technical fields because of the higher pay, the pay for those jobs would decrease thanks to the supply. Additionally, the pay for humanities jobs would (hopefully) increase if the market really calls for X% of population being great poets/fiction novelists/writers.

    As long as we make sure the people with (arts) degree are not working as burger flippers or other low-paying jobs they overly qualified for, whether government offers more/less aids to arts/engineering does not affect the government’s coffer too much in the long run.

  26. There are a few subjects that are between the humanities and science categories; for example, some argue that psychology and sociology are science, yet others say they are not and are in the humanities.

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