Politics & Policy

Oh, the Humanities: The STEM of the Problem

photo by P. A. Jensen

A recent bit in the Chronicle of Higher Education highlights one “tortured” fellow’s failure to get any job security in higher education. (Yes, “tortured” is the Chronicle’s word, not mine.) As discussed in a previous article (“Adjuncts Go Marching”), this is barely newsworthy, and owes largely to a large-scale failure to understand the economics of a chosen profession, rather than some large conspiracy to devalue education and its practitioners.

However, in his lament the “tortured” gentleman makes a critical—and infinitely more interesting—admission: he has nowhere else to go.

From the horse’s mouth: “We are uncertain even of our most basic survival if we were to leave, knowing that a few thousand dollars per course is horrible, but hav[e] no other readily visible market for our labor.”

Theeeere it is. Now we’re getting somewhere. And by “somewhere,” I mean the foundation of our system of higher education, which is rotting.

One assumption underlying the entirety of the “adjunct crisis” is that people with advanced degrees need to work in higher education. For reasons that we’ve already covered, this assumption should be quickly dismissed after a quick survey of the supply and demand curves for the labor of classroom instruction. That is, we need far fewer faculty members than we need graduate students, apparently, meaning there will be some severe selection steps in the hiring of faculty, in true Darwinian fashion. This fact—fact—is either glossed over or outright ignored during many of the discussions of the “adjunct crisis,” probably because it’s unpopular with the core demographic, and also because ignoring this fact fits nicely with the narrative of “valuing education,” however poorly defined.

But that’s not the worst of it. A corollary of the unstated logic of the “adjunct crisis” is another assumption that strikes to the heart of the value of higher education generally. Here’s where we get into some serious incentives for faculty groups to ignore the facts, because wrestling with them would reveal a lie about higher education broadly.

That lie? That education is so valuable that someone can do anything—anything—with a college degree.

And that lie is widespread. The notion that you can do “anything” with a degree, seemingly regardless of chosen major, is so often repeated on college campuses that it’s practically dogma. (I should know—I worked on one of those campuses.) This dogma is especially prevalent within many of the classic liberal arts, particularly the humanities.

Like many dogmas, though, people often don’t bother to say it out loud, perhaps because talking about it too much reveals holes in the core argument.

That argument, stated or not, goes something like this: the skills that are developed while attaining degrees in history/English/whatever are so broadly transferrable, so broadly marketable, that they open countless doors in the labor market. If you have a degree in philosophy, for example, your critical-thinking skills will be off the charts, and certainly higher than someone with a degree in, say, business. If your degree is in history, your ability to comprehend complex information and write about it will shine compared to someone with a degree in, say… well… anything, at least outside the humanities. These skills are supposedly vanishing from our labor force, and having them will be enough to get you a job.

This is real. I’ve heard this argument made in good faith. Repeatedly.

Our friend from above exposes this argument as a lie. Remember, he himself says that there is “no other readily visible market for our labor.”

To be glib about it, if a bachelor’s degree in a humanities discipline can get you a job doing anything, then having a Ph.D. in that same discipline should make you set for life.

More seriously, when I worked on a college campus, I spent my time in a biology department, which is considered an area of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). It always struck me as odd how faculty from the humanities, especially, seemed to think that they had the market cornered on critical thinking, or reading comprehension, or writing. I never understood, and still don’t understand, how humanities degrees fostered better critical-thinking skills than, say, a degree in mathematics. Or how writing term papers using primary documents in a history class was somehow superior to writing reports from primary data in a chemistry class.

Now, before we go further, keep in mind that I am not hostile to the humanities generally. In fact, when I worked at the college—worked there—I took a minor’s worth of college courses in philosophy. Yep, I enrolled, sat with the students, wrote the papers, and took the tests. (It turns out that being a professor at a non-elite liberal arts college isn’t that hard.) So, I know of what I speak: I’ve seen it from the inside, and recently, as both a professor and a student. And an administrator, which was especially eye-opening.

Also—and I say this precisely because I know how it sounds—one of my best friends at the college was a history professor, and we engaged in many friendly discussions about differences between the humanities and the sciences, including differences between students who study each. So, in all, this isn’t an attack on the humanities themselves, or the people who study them, at least necessarily.

With that out of the way, it seemed to me, and still does, that the STEM fields can foster skills in critical-thinking, writing, and reading as well as the humanities do. Because I often insisted on teaching freshmen and non-majors, I saw students from a variety of majors, and the correlations of writing ability and critical-thinking skills with area of study were weak, if they existed at all. Some students from the humanities did these things well, and others didn’t. They weren’t any better or worse than the STEM students, actually, I didn’t think.

However, a different correlation did stand out: quantitative skills. Students in STEM fields—even freshmen, who haven’t had much college-level math or science—were significantly better at manipulating numbers.

Seeing as how our labor force, especially the college-educated labor force, is trending towards jobs that demand quantitative skills, I would think this should “be the headline.” In STEM you learn how to read critically, analyze data/arguments, and write about them, probably at least as well as you do in the humanities. On top of that, though, you learn how to work with numbers, whether in spreadsheets or in some other sort of programming language, and you learn how to interpret (and create!) graphs. This is icing on the cake on the buffet of careers in the 21st-century economy. Stated simply, if you want critical thinking, and there are numbers anywhere within spitting distance, STEM fields are where it’s at.

This observation fits nicely with the “adjunct crisis” highlighted above. The typical victims in that perceived crisis do not have degrees in chemistry, or mathematics, or the STEM fields generally. That’s because they can get jobs elsewhere, often doing science-y things. Sometimes not, though, as many of my STEM brethren and I have found out: there’s a need for people who can crunch numbers, even outside of business and accounting.

(This, too, is real. I myself freelance in such a capacity, as a data analyst. I’m not a statistician—at all, actually. My lone qualification? I’m not a total idiot when it comes to manipulating numbers or making graphs. That’s not modesty, that’s just the truth—the demand in the market is actually great enough that even a former biologist [about as far away from math as you can get and still be within STEM, truth be told] can get paid for it.)

People with graduate degrees in other fields, though, as unwittingly revealed by our “tortured” friend above, don’t seem to have any other prospects. They’ve dug themselves into an economic hole, perhaps for a variety of reasons, many of which no doubt deal with some romantic notions of higher education, or scholarship, or education generally, or perhaps—perhaps—due to varying degrees of poor reasoning and planning, if not psychological… quirks.

So, what, all of this “you can do anything with a degree in (insert humanities major)” is just a lie? An active swindle?

Probably not, of course. Yes, there’s a cynical, job-security argument to be made here, but a more interesting explanation is at least two-fold. First, many people who major in humanities fields are just flat-out talented. As discussed elsewhere, these “achievers” would do well no matter their field of study. So, yes, some students will succeed no matter their degree choice, even in the humanities, but that’s the point: the humanities degree had little to do with it, even if it honed some existing skills (as any degree would have done).

Second, and more important, the key here is that humanities disciplines are the only disciplines stooping to have the “you can do anything” discussion at all. If you’re talented, you can indeed succeed with a history degree, but you could also succeed with a math degree, or a degree in accounting. However, these other fields (typically in STEM and professional studies like business or medicine) often have better-defined career paths for their graduates. Engineering professors could probably tell their students that their analytical skills could transfer to “any job,” but why waste time reinventing the career wheel when the engineering skillset as a whole is actually in demand, and in a relatively high-paying field? Further, someone with a degree in, say, statistics could certainly choose her own adventure in the marketplace, just like a political science major could, but because she chose to study something of obvious value, she’d be doing statistics wherever she went, because there’s a huge—huge—demand for that.

See, it might matter less if that statistics major could read or write well, because she also got other marketable skills. Beyond that, though, if she can read and write, the fact that she can also work with numbers just catapulted her in front of everybody—everybody!—with a political science degree, at least in the general marketplace. She just became the whole package, at least in an employer’s eyes.

So, yes, people in STEM fields focus on the skills that make them marketable—that’s what separates them from the people in the humanities.

Said another way, statistics professors don’t need to waste their time telling their students that they can do well competing with everybody else for any random job “doing anything they want.” Sure, graduates with degrees in statistics might be able to do abstract things like “think critically” and “craft arguments,” but they will also be marketable, at relatively high salaries, right out of college, doing exactly what they learned to do in college. Those other abstract skills probably just came as part of the package. Why bother?

In other news, STEM graduates might be good at cutting grass or shoveling snow. We don’t talk about that, either.

Of course, humanities majors can do these things, too, I suppose. The difference, though, is that many of them end up finding out firsthand…

Zing. Couldn’t resist.

Circling back, the “adjunct crisis” is often framed as a conflict. That conflict pits the uneducated, ignorant masses, coupled with evil politicians and administrators, on one side, against those seeking truth, with a commitment to higher education, or to “critical thinking,” on the other. Oddly, it turns out that those on the side of “critical thinking” can’t seem to figure out how to keep a job, despite the writing having been on the wall for decades.

That’s oversimplified, and a bit unfair, of course, but even a more nuanced description of that conflict would still reveal a lot of bunk. The “adjunct crisis,” which is not actually much of a crisis at all, is actually a product of our more general “higher-education crisis,” which is indeed a crisis, if for no other reason than it wastes—wastes—so much of our money. The “adjunct crisis” mirrors the economic realities of many of our college graduate generally, especially outside of STEM and professional studies. Higher education has decayed, and from the inside.

The fact that we’re still talking about this perceived crisis? Or, the fact that so many people within higher education are talking about it? That doesn’t signal that there’s a problem. Instead, it reveals how big of a problem exists in our higher-education system generally. It uncovers the lies we tell ourselves about what a college degree means.

Ironically, it also uncovers that the faculty itself is at the root of that problem, due in no small part to its failure to—wait for it—think critically, and about themselves. You know, just like the humanities supposedly teach us to do.



P. A. Jensen, a former tenured biology professor and college administrator, is editor of RuralityCheck.com. He lives in northern Minnesota with his wife and son.





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