Wednesday, March 21, 2018

What's an education worth - Part II

In his comment on an earlier post, Jason Antrosio referenced this piece by Justin Stover, “There is no case for the humanities.”

At first I thought it was going to be attacking them as unimportant, but Stover is actually making a quite different point.

When people make a “case” for humanities—why students should still consider majoring in English, or philosophy, why colleges and universities should continue having departments in the disciplines of the humanities—they are making an instrumental argument. The humanities are good because they help you think better, they develop moral, they’re about ethics, they’re about truth, they unleash creativity.
Finally, we are most commonly told that the humanities are about skills. There is something valid about this argument: learning to parse Sanskrit undoubtedly entails some general cognitive benefit. But those benefits are always byproducts. No one wants to learn Sanskrit because it will give them a leg up in a fast-moving economy. It will never be a compelling case for the humanities that they are like a gym for the mind. Forget about attracting administrators — that argument will not even get you any students.
Stover counters the earlier instrumental arguments as well.

In the end, he says the humanities are important because they are precisely what makes something a university rather than being a polytechnic or an advanced high school.
Still, whatever administrators and legislators might think, the fact that there is no case for the humanities is irrelevant. The humanities do not need to make a case within the university, because the humanities are the heart of the university. Golfers do not need to justify to their foursomes the rationale for hitting little white balls; philatelists do not need to explain to their stamp-collecting societies what makes them excited about vintage postage. So too, for humanists: The university can be many things, but without us, a university it will not be.
I would offer another argument for the humanities, which is that we are, by historical standards, an insanely wealthy society. The median income has stagnated for four decades, but taken in aggregate, we have continued to get wealthier.

Nobody is surprised that a country with a per capita gross domestic product of $2,000 can’t allow itself the luxury of people becoming experts in the contemporaries of Chaucer, but that is distinctly not our situation.

50 years ago, our GDP per capita (measured in dollars with the purchasing power of 2016) was $25,800 and we had robust humanities departments as a matter of course.

In 2016, our GDP per capita (measured in those same 2016 dollars) was $58,500, and we’re claiming that it’s just too expensive for us to afford these fields of study, unless someone can show that they’re actually “good for something.”

If we somehow cannot find the money for the humanities, the issue is not that we can’t afford them, but that we have decided we do not value them in themselves.

Stover offers another explanation of what the humanities are “for,” and it’s a reason that reaches back to ancient Rome with the teaching of the grammaticus and the middle ages with the reading of Virgil. Knowing how to comment on Aristotle didn’t really make you a better bureaucrat, lawyer, or estate manager, but it marked you as part of a class, and an international one at that.
Deep down, what most humanists value about the humanities is that they offer participation in a community in which they can share similar tastes in reading, art, food, travel, music, media, and yes, politics. We might talk about academic diversity, but the academy is a tribe, and one with relatively predictable tastes. ...
As teachers, what humanists want most of all is to initiate their students into that class. Despite occasional conservative paranoia, there is not some sinister academic plot to brainwash students with liberal dogma. Instead, humanists are doing what they have always done, trying to bring students into a class loosely defined around a broad constellation of judgments and tastes. This constellation might include political judgments, but it is never reducible to politics.
Stover admits that,
The mere existence of a class is, however, not a case for its existence in society as a whole. Telling the state and the public that they should support higher education in order to turn out more people like the professorial class is unlikely to generate any enthusiasm.
I wonder how much of the current dudgeon over the humanities is driven by the shift in the structure of how higher education is paid for and the rewards it provides, combined with the notion in the last few decades that “everyone” should go to college.

If you go back a century, finishing high school was considered something of an accomplishment. As recently as 1940, only 25% of people age 25 or older had finished high school; today it’s 90%.

In 1940, 4.6% had finished a four-year college; today it’s 34% (and since 2014, slightly more women than men have a college education).
Data from Census Bureau; see note at the end of the post
When college was a rarity, it couldn’t be that big a part of government spending, even when states were providing tuition-free education for their residents at institutions like UC Berkeley. (As recently as 1968, in-state tuition was $0, with a “registration fee” of $300 per year, equivalent to about $2,000 today.)

With the expansion of college after World War II (partly due to the GI Bill), spending picked up, particularly by the government: higher-ed spending rose from 1.2% of government outlays in 1959 to 3% in 1977, and it has stayed in the range of 2.5% to 3% ever since.
Data from Bureau of Economic Analysis; see data note at the end of the post
Taken as a share of GDP, government spending on higher education went from roughly 0.3% of GDP in 1959 to almost 1% in 1976. Since then, it’s fluctuated up and down a little, but from the long perspective, it’s barely budged.

Households’ direct expenditure on college has followed a different path: as a share of GDP, it rose almost continuously from 1979 to 2010, more than doubling during that time.
Data from Bureau of Economic Analysis; see data note at the end of the post
This next figure layers the private spending on top of the government spending, so you can more easily see the total and a sense of the relative weights of the two funding sources.

Data from Bureau of Economic Analysis; see data note at the end of the post
I would surmise that the increase in the portion of people going to college and the shifts in how higher education is paid for have had an impact on our view of education’s role and our expectations of its “utility.”

If you go back before the Civil War, before the creation of the land-grant colleges, a very small slice of Americans went to college, and those who did were predominantly male and overwhelmingly White.

Government funding for higher education was slim to none. The cost was covered by students and their families, as well as the churches or other organizations that ran colleges, helped along by private donations.

In those circumstances, if colleges wanted to reproduce a class of people capable of reading Virgil and conjugating Latin verbs—or even Greek—the broad public might think it was silly, quite likely a waste of money, but it wasn’t really anybody else’s concern.

But we’ve made it many more people’s concern by creating the expectation that a Bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite to making an impact in the world.

Of our first 25 presidents, 11 didn’t go to college, including George Washington and (probably most famously) Abraham Lincoln.

Starting with POTUS 26 (Teddy Roosevelt), every president except Truman has been a college graduate. Even a man as profoundly uneducated as Donald Trump has a degree (and of course feels the need to boast about what a great student [he thinks] he was).

Looking at a sample of American business titans of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford never went to college (Ford studied bookkeeping at a business college in New York); Frick went to college for one year but then left. (All facts in this paragraph attributable to Wikipedia)

Today we assume that success in business all but requires a college degree, if not an MBA as well. Bill Gates being a college drop-out is viewed as an odd exception, not a perfectly normal phenomenon.

We’ve changed college from being predominantly for the cultural elites, people aspiring to join the cultural elite, and a few men of the cloth, into something of a universal expectation of the middle class.

Stover mentions that the land-grant colleges were created to promote more effective agricultural practices, but that they added humanities, not because reading Virgil makes you a better farmer, but because they aspired to be true universities. And when it was still a relative handful of the population attending, that wouldn’t draw much attention.

As we shifted to an expectation that college was the road to ambition, we also shifted to government playing a larger role in funding the enterprise. That meant that significant (though still small) portions of tax dollars were going to universities, giving the broader public more of a reason to care what went on there.

More specifically, as college was spreading far beyond its old clientele of the cultural elite, its financing was coming more from taxes. Some of the financial elite had always chosen to send their children to college, and they’d paid for that themselves. They had also chosen from time to time to pay for a building, a stadium, a professorship, or even to endow an entire school. Now, through taxes, they were paying for other people’s children, whether they chose to or not.

Since the mid-1970’s, government spending on higher ed as a share of GDP hasn’t gone down, so wealthy taxpayers have the same potential source of irritation as before. But private household spending has more than doubled, meaning that college students and their families feel the cost more keenly and have more reason to want to see demonstrable benefit from their expenditures.

Lastly, while college graduates still earn considerably more than non-graduates, the degree doesn’t function as well as it used to as a guarantee of a job commensurate with one’s education. When a third of the adult population has finished college, having a degree may be a prerequisite to all sorts of coveted work, but it hardly makes you stand out.

The expansion of universities after World War II created this abundance of graduates, but as long as it continued it also solved part of the problem it created: more students meant a need for more professors, so if you went on to graduate work you could probably get a job teaching. But that’s a process that has a natural limit, and maybe we’ve hit it.

A perfect storm: wealthy people resenting paying for other people’s children; average households feeling like they have to send their kids to college, while the financial burden of that education grows and the financial rewards become less certain.

Stover may be right that the humanities define the university as something more than an advanced high school.

And he may be right that the humanities serve to perpetuate a particular class.

His concluding prescription is that,
The humanities and the university do need defenders, and the way to defend the humanities is to practice them. Vast expanses of humanistic inquiry are still in need of scholars and scholarship. Whole fields remain untilled. We do not need to spend our time justifying our existence. All we need to do is put our hand to the plow. Scholarship has built institutions before and will do so again. Universities have declined and come to flourish once more. The humanities, which predate the university and may well survive it, will endure — even if there is no case to defend them.
The conditions of American higher education have changed in the last 80 years, and while I’m sympathetic to Stover’s argument, it may no longer be enough.

Data notes

The data on college completion are from the Census Bureau, via this page.

The steps behind the calculation of education-spending data are somewhat involved, so I’ve put their explanation into a separate post.

I don’t have hard data behind my descriptions of college pre Civil War.

The relative rarity is based on remembered factoids from who knows where, including that high-school itself used to be far from universal. That is reinforced by back-casting from the data I do have from 1940 onward.

The idea of students being predominantly male and overwhelmingly white is based on similar “general knowledge” sources, reinforced by facts such as the noteworthiness of Oberlin College admitting women and African Americans in the 19th century—if either of those stances were common, they wouldn’t have been noteworthy.


  1. Great post, making a case for the economic side of Stover's argument. I love the quote about the golf balls--glad you used it!

  2. Oops, now that I've said that, I have a question. When you conclude that "it may no longer be enough," enough for what? Stover says we should be practicing the humanities, and he explicitly says the current university system may not endure. So when you say "may not be enough," what are you saying?

    1. I guess I'd forgotten Stover's point that the university may not endure.

      I meant to imply, "may not be enough to keep back the savages at the gates."

      But you're right that Stover acknowledges that as well.

      I guess that means I'm leaning more pessimistic than he is, because the conditions under which the humanities flourished are so thoroughly changed.

      On the other hand (you knew that was coming - I am an economist, after all), the humanistic accomplishments of the past were accomplished with a much smaller corpus of humanist scholars, not merely in number but also as a proportion of their societies.

      But back to the pessimistic view, if the role of the humanist is to help us process and make sense of our cultural output, then we need more humanists than earlier, because near-universal literacy and the accessibility of print and then the internet has created an explosion of cultural output to be understood.

    2. Hm. So... "if the role of the humanist is to help us process" sounds kind of like you're making a "case for the humanities." Smiley. I think Stover's point is that we need to practice the humanities, and that is in itself enough. And yes, it is time to get very busy making sense of cultural output. Maybe paring some of it back a bit.

    3. I was indeed making a glancing pass at a case for the humanities.

      Sure, if humanists spend all their time making their case and not practicing the humanities, then they'll have lost even if they somehow manage to win. So I agree with Stover that humanists should be practicing the humanities.

      But I think it's a mistake to not have a cogent pushback on the argument that "it's all a waste of time, intellectual wankery, I don't want my money paying for it."

    4. Yeah, that's why I'm trying to get enough eyeballs on my stuff so that Google ads and the like enable me to pay for it. :)

      To go back to golf--classic wankery--but somebody pays for it, and they don't need to constantly be making a case for it.