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Insane Citizens: Humanities and Profit

April 8, 2010

I’d like to take a quick look at a piece on education I read a few weeks ago and offer a few comments. In a recent article on the Chronicle of Education website , Robert N. Watson, a Professor of English at UCLA, makes the argument that the humanities are actually a profitable enterprise within the academic world.

Watson is responding to the remarks made by UC President Mark Yudof: “Many of our, if I can put it this way, businesses are in good shape. We’re doing very well there. Our hospitals are full, our medical business, our medical research, the patient care. So, we have this core problem: Who is going to pay the salary of the English department? We have to have it. Who’s going to pay it in sociology, in the humanities? And that’s where we’re running into trouble.” As many of us know here in CA, Yudof is in the business of running the university into the ground and turning it into a private enterprise (I should also note this broken picnic table is more popular among UC students than he).

Watson does some nifty footwork to show how the humanities, in fact, pay for themselves in terms of tuition and in his own words “turn a profit.” He goes on to show how many of the policies concerning funding in the UC system are largely crafted by those outside of the humanities (ie hard sciences) and who look upon them as needless waste. Furthermore, he discusses how the university has been invaded by a hordes of managers in order to streamline efficiency and reduce waste (as we know, this is a key component of the neo-liberalization model – in order to help with profits middle managers are brought in to harass and intimidate people trying to do their job with the ironic results of wasting more money in the end on people who don’t do anything productive. This is called mangerialism – see more at k-punk).

While all of this is mildly interesting and well-argued (I’m not particularly interested in the numbers games of university balance sheets), I do have one big problem with Watson’s piece – mainly how it’s framed. He hints at this problem himself when he says:

No sane citizenry measures its public elementary schools by whether they pay for themselves immediately and in dollars. We shouldn’t have to make a balance-sheet argument for the humanities, either, at least not until the balance-sheet includes the value, to the student and to the state, of expanded powers of personal empathy and cross-cultural respect, improved communication through language and other symbolic systems, and increased ability to tolerate and interpret complexity, contemplate morality, appreciate the many forms of artistic beauty, and generate creative, independent thought.

I agree with Watson (though I’m not sure if he agrees with himself) – we shouldn’t have to make a balance-sheet argument for the humanities, because we are, in fact, not insane citizens. Humanities have always and should always remain outside of the violent logic of profit and greed (“Yea, sorry, Dr. Plato, you’re gonna have to cut down on your classes and ask you to start charging more tution here at the Academy – you know, because we need start turning a profit! Oh and by the way, “On the Good”? What good does that kind of lecture do for the youth of Athens? Let’s focus more on microeconomics.”) Why he titled the article “Humanities Really Do Produce a Profit” and made a balance-sheet argument is beyond me given the passage above.

We should and cannot enter in the debate and logic of neo-liberalism, for we shall lose! Watson’s arguments are all very nice, but as he demonstrates himself, once you enter into this byzantine labyrinth of spreadsheets and tabulations, you expose yourself to a logic for which we cannot understand and is not likely a cogent logic at all (that is cannot be “understood”). For every stat or argument made in this piece I’m sure there’s a middle manager or businessman/regent who can show us how humanities actually aren’t profitable using the same nebulous data. The same idea of engagement applies when say dealing with a racist or Nazi: you don’t argue with them on their own terms (ie the un-logic of racism) – “Oh, well some Jews are greedy, but most are great!” No, you say, “I will not discuss whether Jews as people are greedy or not, because that is not a viable foundation for a meaningful debate…(and go fuck yourself, Nazi).”

Don’t fight battles you cannot win on the wrong battlefields (I think Clausewitz said that). We must make the argument for the life and sanctity of the university (and humanities) as place of learning and knowledge on our own terms and on our own grounds. It is only then will we able to fight off neo-liberalism and win (this has already begun in many places).

Radiohead – I am Citizen Insane

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Ed Muskie permalink
    April 9, 2010 2:41 am

    So the plan is to declare that the humanities/social sciences deserve funding because…they deserve funding?

    Aside from some academics and students, who do you think is going to agree with this viewpoint?

    Just because you think the humanities/social sciences are sacrosanct automatically makes them so?

    By your logic, is there any limit to how well the humanities/social sciences should be funded?

    Do you think academia operates in a vacuum with limitless resources?

    What stops someone from applying the same logic to a program you don’t like or don’t agree with?

    Clausewitz would beat you to death with boredom. You want Jomini — he was all about impregnable fortresses.

    And why is ‘the’ in ‘RIDING the THIRD RAIL’ italicized and in lower case when the rest of the title is in upper-case standard font? Please get your shit together.

    • April 10, 2010 5:58 pm

      You come back from the dead to respond to my blog, Ed Muskie, and this is all you bring to the table? I think it’s this kind of suspect critical thinking skills that got your ass kicked in 1972 Presidential campaign…well that or the fact you hate French-Canadians and people who have oral sex. Let’s just say, Ed Muskie, that you were a graduate student in your next life and you wanted to do a dissertation on Soviet repeals practice in the 1920s and 30s, would you still think that there should be a limit to funding the humanities or would you prefer that the government not give you money so you can get drunk in Moscow and hang out for a year studying something like 12 people care about in the entire world? Think about it Ed Muskie. And Clausewitz would probably like you because you’re a tight-ass.

      • Ed Muskie permalink
        April 11, 2010 1:51 pm

        I lost in 1972 because Hunter Thompson destroyed my campaign, and because my party abandoned me for the unelectable optimism of a senator from South Dakota.

        You think my hatred for French-Canadians helped me lose the election? Hogwash! Where do you think my base came from? You call yourself a political analyst?

        As for coming back from the dead, don’t call it a come back. I’ve been here for years.

        I don’t know who this hypothetical grad student loser is, but I’m sure that he doesn’t deserve funding for studying Soviet ‘repeals’ practices. Sounds beyond belief anyway. At least put forth a possible scenario.

        You failed to address my questions, which is not at all unexpected. I don’t know how you expect this blog to gain momentum if you refuse to respond to your readers.

        And by the way, is ‘riding the third rail’ a euphemism for masturbation? Be prepared to answer that question again and again.

  2. Jenna permalink
    April 9, 2010 4:16 am

    It’s call a typographic solution…get your shit together. I’m guessing you’re not a graphic designer so your opinion really doesn’t matter, sorry.

  3. April 15, 2010 3:49 pm

    Look, Ed Muskie, I don’t know the unhealthy sexual perversion from which you suffer, but not only did it hurt your chances in the presidential election (anal sex is really a national problem?), but it’s affecting your ability to think rationally at this point (third rail, Ed? you’re sick). Like all true moralists, you’re clearly a pervert.

    As for the 1972 campaign, blaming your loss on a half-literate speed addict posing as a journalist is about as sad as it gets.

    Your questions are even sad and shallow, Ed Muskie. And to be frank I’m a bit surprised at some of them. Where would you have learned your excellent debating skills that won you acclaim at Bates college had you not been afforded a strong education in the humanities Ed Muskie? I think a 2000 plus year record of respecting the humanities as something that should lie outside of the profit motive approach the universe is a pretty good buttress for my argument. Really if you think about it – the idea that the humanities (and knowledge for that matter) should be subordinated to the market “principles” is only about 30 yrs or so old. I can’t wait to see what effects this mindset will have on Western Civilization when we get to see its results in a generation or two. Where would you put the ability to read/write/think critically in the hierarchy of profit driven education?

    As for the idea of debate – yes, Ed Muskie anyone can happily respond to the post or idea that humanities are sacrosanct – it’s called the free exchange of ideas. I wasn’t sure where I disallowed that. Again – weren’t you a debater in college?

    Vacuums? Limitless resources? First, no Ed Muskie, I am not a capitalist if that’s what you’re implying – I do not pretend the physical world represents an endless resource for plunder and profit. And two, how might you quantify the ability to read/write/think? Last time I checked that form of knowledge is limitless and not confined to vacuums, but I could be wrong.


  1. Obama’s War on Public Education « Riding the Third Rail

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