Humanities: A Waste of Money?

With the focus of higher education on jobs and income more than ever, it is a wonder why the liberal arts and the humanities are worth the investment. A history or philosophy class can’t deliver skills that the workforce requires, right?

A very small fraction of graduates will qualify for an MBA, law school, or medical school. A small fraction of undergraduate students in the sciences complete a biology or chemistry degree. More jobs simply require a bachelor’s degree as evidence of some set of competencies – from clerks to kitchen staff. James McGrath makes a point of this:

I wonder whether the question “Will this be on the final exam?”, and the sense many of today’s students have that core curriculum and general education courses are irrelevant to their chosen vocation, are not connected. Both reflect the belief that the future will follow a predictable path, and that all students need to do is gather up the answers now and then have them ready for the moments when they are needed.

I am finding the “final exam” rhetoric no more prevalent than in recent talks about higher education ratings and jobs. The final exam is employment and the outcome of employment is a return on investment in that degree. In the end, getting a job and money are why we go to school. This would mean that religious studies is superfluous unless wrapped in, say, an international business degree. Philosophy is pointless unless it might help you in, say, debating in a political or law career. Music, art, and literature? These are clearly wastes of money and time.

Once again liberal arts and humanities are on the chopping block in a revolving door of utilitarianism.

Not everyone in the business world would agree that a liberal education is superfluous. Learning how to think and acquire a diverse plasticity of the mind is valuable.

The people who succeed in more expensive labor markets like the U.S. will be those who can think creatively and generate the ideas that will propel economic growth. Such skills, (Vivek Ranadive, CEO of Palo Alto tech firm Tibco Software) said, are best fostered in a traditional liberal-arts environment.

Ironic how we keep coming back to a liberal education and the liberal arts to “reform” higher education when education takes a utilitarian route.

While outsourcing skills learned in a liberal arts education to the MOOC environment is debatable at best, dumping what seem to be “useless” courses will prove a bad investment in the economy and in society once again. Re-envisioning models for teaching students to think is always important. Cutting programs based on arbitrary return on investment data points has no long-term gains.

College À La Carte

In the age of the extra value meal there is something elegant about getting one sandwich. It is getting second nature to get the value meal as if it is the only option. The downside is that extra-value meals result in us consuming more than we need and we are getting fatter from it.

Try not getting a value meal at a drive-thru. It takes more time to look over the menu to figure out what you want. The choice combinations are difficult to sort out. Choice is not what it is cracked up to be since it takes more effort.

Barry Schwartz argues that too much choice creates a situation in which too much choice results in unhappiness. This is The Paradox of Choice. Having more options seems to give us more freedom, but that much freedom creates a situation where we are not sure if we made the right decision. We second-guess rather than enjoy what we have.

However, some kind of guidance to lessen the blow of being overwhelmed by options can help. I will go to Consumer Reports or read reviews of a product before I invest in it. I need a “nudge.” Having a little nudge in one direction helps to oil the rational machinery of choice. Of course, there are bad nudges from people who have unreasonable opinions. Do we agree with all the crappy reviews or good reviews a movie gets from critics? I will stand by my opinion that both Forrest Gump and The English Patient suck. Critics did not help me at all.

Enter education. We have plenty of nudges. The President wants a nudge of a ratings system to help consumer choice. US News and World Report has been a nudge for education consumers for years. We have Peterson’s guides, and now MOOC’s, all there to help us with our decision-making. Each institution nudges us with marketing departments in the spirit of competition.

So what if we removed all of that and let the students choose what they wanted? Interesting idea from David Roberts:

Cloud U students could define their own educational paths, deciding what and how they want to learn by purchasing individual courses via an iTunes-like portal, with formats ranging from large, multilayered affairs with online lectures, interactive tutorials and chat sessions to microclasses that would quickly teach very specific skills.

The idea isn’t new. The largest ground-shift in US higher education came at the close of the 19th century when Charles Eliot introduced the secular, elective curriculum at Harvard. It was a light form of a pick-your-own adventure experience which was unheard of before that point. That basic structure exists to this day. However, in recent decades, institutions have moved back to some form of core curriculum to ensure graduates are getting the same set of skills and knowledge with social science, philosophy, history, mathematics, etc.

Can we trust our youth and their families to make educational degree and learning decisions without the kind of direct interventions that an institution of higher learning provides?

It is not enough to let students go à la carte with their educational goals. The reason is simple: students and families don’t know well enough what kind of learning a student needs to design a program of study. Maybe in this area, the extra-value meal is not a bad thing and is actually a healthier option in the long run.

Students still need a nudge and a system that helps them to make choices that will affect their entire lives. We don’t purchase cars or houses one part at a time. Why would we let ourselves do the same with an investment as massive as education? Having someone with training to teach us how to create our learning isn’t much different from enrolling an engineer or architect.

For as much as higher education is challenged, we still come back to the conclusion that we still need it – and for good reason.

Will College Sell Students?

After President Obama’s speech at the University of Buffalo yesterday, there was a firestorm of commentary. The Chronicle notes the mixed reviews of the proposals and public college endorsements. The President touted a new ratings system that would be tied to aid and therefore, the net cost of attending an institution. That ratings system was discussed in the New York Times and was also mentioned on the Roosevelt Institute Blog.

Reform in the cost/aid ratio is a long overdue. Higher education is nearly unattainable for most without some kind of loan package. Access and net cost for higher education is related and the discussion is how to make that more fair. Perhaps some of our elite institutions are hiding their value behind ultra selectivity. Moreover, internal grade inflation problems have not gone undetected in some of these elite universities. Princeton had to deal with those charges head-on.

I am a supporter of fair competition. Obviously an institution like the University of Chicago that charges its students in excess of $60,000 a year in total cost is unfair if it is to compete with Pennsylvania Highlands Community College. Rather, the measure of competition will be based on “value” tied to “performance” measured by a “rating system.” Put a different way: “Quantification goes hand-in-hand with competition: once we’ve assigned everyone a number, why not force them to fight over scarce resources? That’ll clearly improve everyone’s performance!”

The idea is to create more transparency for consumer choice and to tilt subsidies to higher performing schools. This sounds reasonable in theory. However, we won’t know what any of this will look like until a rating system is devised. That’s where things can get really sticky, really fast. For example, such a system may have unintended consequences for the community college system which is currently the most affordable source of higher education.

The plan is not unlike the Spellings Plan which was highly criticized by accreditation bodies and universities alike. Obama’s plan includes better transitions from secondary to post-secondary schools, consumer transparency, and value based on performance-based outcomes. But the Obama plan also includes incentives for institutions to enroll lower-income students which the Spellings Plan did not.

Skeptics of the Spellings Plan were concerned that the principles behind No Child Left Behind would be applied to higher education. The Obama plan re-introduces those principles of ratings, value-added, return on investment, and performance. There is cause to be concerned at how these metrics will look and how they will impact college choice. These are symptomatic issues.

The deeper philosophical issue is this: When we say “value” in education, what do we mean? North Carolina governor Pat McCrory infamously said that aid would be given to state institutions “not based upon how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.” The value of education in this language is clear – higher education is about jobs. Learning is in the service of the economy. If higher education is not creating an able workforce, then why would we have it?

The Association of Private Sector Colleges in their publication America’s Private Sector Colleges and Universities: Generating Real Value for Students and Society notes that, “By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require some postsecondary education.” Value here is measured by return on investment. Do we place students in jobs that offset the price of their education? Are we then able to use education to place them in jobs that help grow the economy? The President’s language seems to follow lock-step with this philosophy. Here are some of the metrics he mentioned:

How much debt does the average student leave with?  How easy it is to pay off?  How many students graduate on time?  How well do those graduates do in the workforce?  Because the answers will help parents and students figure out how much value a college truly offers.

Certainly employment is vital and is one reason many students seek a higher education. But there is a basic principle that we must not overlook. Is education for the end of creating a workforce? The political rhetoric seems to point in this direction. If the focus is on jobs, “The narrow educational focus on economic development is alarming because it places the market in control of the curriculum” (Ayers, 2005, p. 546). So who is truly controlling the end of education other than market forces and the government’s assumed responsibility to create skilled labor?

Education for this end has lost its understanding of value as the cultivation of the mind and the development of truth, beauty, and goodness as an ends in themselves. Such endeavor has no short-term return on investment in a society that values instant gratification. Value in this kind of society is measured by how much money one can make, and how much money one can deposit back into the economic system. Education by sleight-of-hand is in danger of serving this political agenda that could undermine the nature of education itself.

Humanities and music are in themselves without value based on return on investment alone. Art, philosophy, and even some of the more specialized and abstract scientific studies offer little immediate economic value. Why waste money on these ventures? With the creation of labor as the foundation of education we need to be prepared to answer these questions. Is this the political agenda higher education should serve? Is higher education here to create human capital that can be sold to the economy as viable labor? As Richard Shaull wrote in the foreword to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.


Ayers, D. F. (2005). Neoliberal ideology in community college mission statements: A critical discourse analysis. The Review of Higher Education, 28(4), 527-549.

Freire, Paulo. (2000) Pedagogy of the oppressed /New York : Continuum. p. 34.

5 Things I Should Have Done Earlier to Finish My Ph.D.

I began my Ph.D. with a big idea. I can’t even remember what that idea was. Regardless, it was amazing and fantastic! Which is why I don’t remember what it was. I completed my dissertation in the Fall of 2012 and defended in the Spring of 2013. The end product wasn’t exactly what I had planned and I basically wrote the entire thing in those few months.

I learned mostly what I would have done differently to make the process work more quickly, and more efficiently in my favor. Some of this is advice I received early on but failed to heed. Some of these are little bits that helped me solely out of necessity. The outcome is that I was able to completely rework the first three chapters, collect data, and write the rest of the dissertation – in one semester. Hope these help!

Skim through the tables of contents of dissertations from my program of study. I was thinking about inventing some new wheel or widget with my project. Very little is new in the world of academia. What is novel is usually a different angle on the same object. Those dissertations that go on for awards or get immediate book deals are not the norm. It all depends on your goal. Did I want to complete the degree for my professional career or did I want to shoot for a tenure track position? I wanted the professional goal. Once I accepted that I simplified my crazy mind and followed the same structure other dissertations in my program used. There is nothing wrong or unfair about this. I used a standard style. This was easier for my committee and was easier for me in the long run.

Read other dissertations in your field, especially those related in some way to your problem statement. These are both your peers and competition in the academic arena. If you are seeking tenure-track it is a cutthroat competition. There are likely people who write on certain things far better than you. Get humble enough early so that you can get your own argument laser-focused. Never be dismissive in your critiques of others’ work because these are likely your peers. Be respectful. This is a dialogue and your job is to share your unique contribution to it. Your work is part of a conversation much bigger than you. With humility as a corrective to confidence the process can be more constructive and fun. Yes…this can be fun if you want it to be.

Write often even if it sucks and won’t be part of your dissertation. I have pages of content that I did not use. I simply wrote. Just putting things down on the page gave me an object to work with rather than some abstract, shapeless thoughts jumping around like, well, squirrels in my mind. Once I put ideas on the page I found I had good content to include and ideas that were much clearer than I had previously thought. Jumping into writing is important and is an instant cure for writer’s block.

Listen to your committee and be open-minded and willing to make revisions. Then make those revisions reasonably quickly. Remember that your committee is a small group of faculty who are the gatekeepers to your entrance as a scholar into their field. What they pass is important to their own professional life as their names will be attached to your dissertation on the second page. Your work is also reflective of the institution granting the degree. Just do as they ask and seek clarification if you are not sure. Elect a committee that can make solid comments on your work and that will be responsive. I had a great committee but I chose a great committee. That choice is your political groundwork. Make a good choice and taking their advice will come almost naturally.

Be a human being. I mean this. People need to eat and sleep. People need to laugh and love. We need air and exercise. Without forcing yourself to do these basic requirements for human survival your work will suck, your mind will be less sharp, and you will be miserable. The more human you are in this process the happier you will be. Rather than go for that fifth cup of coffee, cigarette, and burrito, make a smoothie, go for a bike ride, take in a movie, go for a hike. The more human you are in the process the more human your writing will be.

I wish I had done these things from the beginning. My problem is that I don’t think of these practices until I have to practice them. Start early and get some structure around your work with these ideas. This experience may be more fun that you thought it could. The difference between fun and misery is a choice.

What ideas and advice would you give a stressed out doctoral student?

Bullied Students Go Online

Online learning is growing. It is growing quickly compared to other enrollment where overall college enrollment has dropped. This is true both in the higher education sector as well as in the K-12 sector. The question is why are students and parents continue to flock to it?

There are a few boilerplate reasons consistently cited: flexibility of schedules, no commute, workplace subsidization, easy means to degree completion, etc. I am interested in a few other reasons for this growth and one struck me as a statistic we should look at more closely in the coming years: bullying.

Check this out.


That is a lot of desire for change in environment. What is going on in our schools then? It might not be just the curriculum but the places we are sending our kids. Would you send your kid to a babysitter’s house where you really aren’t sure what happens there? All you know is that the parent comes in once in a while to make sure things are ok. Most of the time the babysitter doesn’t have time to watch all of the kids and the kids are free to do what they please.

Yet that’s what happens in schools all over the country.

Our kids go there for up to 10 hours a day if they are in extra-curricular activities. We don’t get to see what is happening there. If this data is correct, as a society we are trusting the school less and less to offer a safe learning and social environment for our kids.

Think about it. What kind of environment are you comfortable leaving your kids with?

During the week, they are there more than they are with you.