Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Towards an Economic Defense of the Humanities; or Wiz becomes a Neoliberal D-Bag

with 8 comments

By Wiz

This article in by William Deresiewicz in The Nation has been getting a lot of circulation (at least among my totally completely typical group of facebook friends). Anyways, the basic point is, at this point, an old one. American Universities are in a crisis: tenure is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, teaching is increasingly being performed by contingent part-time faculty and grad students, administrations are becoming bloated and obscenely highly paid, the humanities are suffering at the expense of business, economics, and the sciences, and states are slashing the budgets of public universities.

Any casual reader of the Chronicle these days will have heard most of these critiques, especially the defense of the humanities in terms of its non-economic value. Deresiewicz is most eloquent on this terrain, as a defense of the liberal arts.

When politicians, from Barack Obama all the way down, talk about higher education, they talk almost exclusively about math and science. Indeed, technology creates the future. But it is not enough to create the future. We also need to organize it, as the social sciences enable us to do. We need to make sense of it, as the humanities enable us to do. A system of higher education that ignores the liberal arts, as Jonathan Cole points out in The Great American University (2009), is what they have in China, where they don’t want people to think about other ways to arrange society or other meanings than the authorized ones. A scientific education creates technologists. A liberal arts education creates citizens: people who can think broadly and critically about themselves and the world.

This is a similar claim to that made by Martha Nussbaum in her Not for Profit, that the liberal arts are essential aspects of an education exactly because they exist outside the marketplace, because they are not reducible to the interests of governments or corporations. As such, they are essential for creating good citizens.

Without a doubt, these are the reasons for supporting the liberal arts. It’s why I am in a humanities program. But I want to make another argument in favor of the humanities, one that even neoliberal technocrats might understand: in our modern post-fordist economy, the humanities make the most economic sense to support.

Hard to produce in China

Here’s my argument (that I partly hate myself for making… but bear with me): the idea that we’ll restart the American economy by investing in engineering or math is ludicrous. Even if we invent great new technologies (like the ipod), we won’t produce ipods in America. Sure Apple, for instance, is good for American investors, and the relatively small group of American engineers who work on it. But Apple mostly employs foreigners: Chinese, Koreans, German, etc… In the global division of labor, America simply won’t be the workshop of the world again anyday soon. Rather our best bet for sustainable economic development is in the realm of what Hardt and Negri call biopower: manipulation and production of knowledge, of code, services, tourism, etc…

The only industry that America remains globally dominant in is entertainment: Hollywood, TV, music, etc… Why not support and encourage the educational apparatus that develops these industries, the few that remain in our competitive advantage? Imagine if we made a concerted effort to preserve our national parks (not turn them into privatized RV playgrounds), invested in public art and architecture to attract tourists, and supported humanities programs so that other countries bought our arts and literature. We’ve got a better chance of keeping Hollywood here, then we do of keeping, say, the steel industry.

Trust me, I know I sound like some horrid Richard Florida asshole here, celebrating the information-economy, and unaware of all the shitty aspects of it. And most of it is shitty (as Ariana Huffington has shown, in our brave new economy, you are lucky to just get attention, don’t think about getting paid for your labor). But as workers in the information economy, we might as well try to get the most support we can. And let’s face it, our neoliberal overlords can only understand an argument phrased in Econ 101 speak. Which is why when we try to convince them that they should support the humanities because it will make us better citizens and better people, we might as well be speaking Greek. And they don’t know Greek because the Classics department got cut.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

May 9, 2011 at 15:59

Posted in Academia

8 Responses

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  1. I really like this post, as you’d expect, though I wouldn’t quite have said it the same way.

    If China is artificially increasing the supply of people with higher education in math & science, it’s not clear why the US should try to compete with them along that dimension. In the basic Econ 101 comparative advantage world, it’s to our benefit to do the opposite. The typical way politicians view the world is that we need to “compete” with China for these math and science jobs. This conventional wisdom would make sense if the economy were zero-sum, or if these math & science jobs brought about all sorts of wonderful externalities to the economy, and therefore we should promote them. But it’s not obvious that they do — those who innovate tend to capture most of the benefits in the modern economy, as you said.

    So given that you need to innovate to get ahead, it’s not at all clear that a pure math & science education is the way to do so. If anything, what I read from China is that they envy the ability of Americans to be creative. And if China does want to massively subsidize math & science and restrict independent thought, it’s fine if the US has the comparative advantage and benefits from all aspects of the economy that require independent thought.


    May 9, 2011 at 17:30

  2. Yes, yes yes. And in addition to that, it’d be nice if business and technology folk and the engineers themselves, perhaps, had some of that humanities stuff training. Flesh them personalities out some, though that helped Bush out none. It’s just another some of them pillars, like infrastructure, we keep ignoring. Scary shit.


    May 9, 2011 at 22:52

  3. So could it be said that technology is today’s equivalent of “natural resource,” trait-wise, centralization of profits, so forth?


    May 9, 2011 at 22:56

  4. This post is wrong. The reason that humanities academia is so valuable to society is that it provides a place for people like Wiz to rail against “neoliberal douchebags” and, more broadly, anybody so base as to do something productive for a living, without any risk that he will actually do any damage to public policy or the economy in the process. Funding for the humanities should be thought of as a harm-reduction strategy, and a cost-effective one at that.

    Josh Barro

    May 9, 2011 at 23:29

    • Gee, Josh, it’s really nice to have you here even if I do wish we could stop meeting like this. Anyway, you’re certainly right: you wouldn’t want humanists to get their soft little hands on the economy and risk damaging it when the aforementioned “neoliberal douchebags” have been doing such an A-1 job of it for years (whilst also managing the tidy trick of consistently enriching themselves—at the public teat if necessary; is this what you consider productive?).

      Given recent history, which has once again disproved pretty much every one of the economic pieties of the douchebags and their douchebag think tanks and Ayn Rand policy wonks, I applaud your courage in making your eloquent case. And, yes, productivity! May we all be as productive as, I dunno, the financial services industry? Those folks and their newfangled widgets are really doing America proud.


      May 10, 2011 at 12:04

  5. Josh clearly forgot to list “make smart ass comments on friends’ blogs” in his tweets about things U35 yuppies do that aren’t economically productive.


    May 10, 2011 at 02:34

  6. […] PhD octopus suppresses gag reflex, makes an economic argument for the humanities. […]

  7. […] activist blogs about the crisis in the UC), it was nothing out of the usual. It was a blog post in defense of the humanities – something with which I whole-heartedly agree and […]

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