Insane Citizens: Humanities and Profit
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