October 28, 2011

A liberal (arts) policy

There is no reason to cut state funding for the humanities and social sciences.

Every once in a while, when math majors are hanging out together in Eckhart Hall and talking, someone will make a joke at the expense of humanities disciplines like English or philosophy; the joke is always something fairly predictable about these fields’ perceived lack of rigor or, if our mathematician is feeling particularly asshole-ish, about how “useless” they are. Of course, everyone understands that it’s all a joke and not meant to be taken seriously.

Sadly, these jokes stopped being funny two weeks ago after Florida Republicans began arguing in favor of cutting funding for non-science and math departments in the state university system. Now the old debate about the usefulness of a liberal arts education has resurfaced, and professors find themselves in the unfortunate situation of having to explain to their (most likely) ignorant state representatives why exactly anyone would want to study anthropology or philosophy. I can’t even imagine what Florida governor Rick Scott would have to say about something like Fundamentals.

It’s heartening that Scott’s comments generated an outcry. Almost immediately, various websites denounced his incredibly narrow viewpoint, which centered on the marketability of degrees in engineering versus those in anthropology. The same types of arguments always used in defense of the humanities and social sciences were once again trotted out with vigorous gusto. Roughly speaking, these arguments tended to stress the idea that disciplines like comparative literature and political science help students develop critical thinking skills that they can’t get anywhere else.

As a society, we should fund things like the humanities and social sciences because they have an intrinsic worth—an intrinsic worth that does not come from a) the marketability of the individual degrees, or b) the critical thinking skills inculcated by these fields in students who then go out and change society for the better. Is it really so controversial to get up and say that knowledge, in and of itself, is a beautiful, noble thing, and because we live in the wealthiest society in the world, we can afford to take an incredibly tiny share of our yearly income to fund it?

I’m tired of defending these subjects by pointing to external criteria for their usefulness. Yes, I am sure that studying the humanities helps one develop writing and communication skills, which, according to the postings I see on CAPS, every single job in the world demands. I don’t doubt that studying philosophy makes you more analytical, which again, every job description that I’ve read in the last six months says is a major plus. And finally, I don’t doubt that having more anthropology and sociology majors around to question social injustices and structural problems does make the world a far better place than it would otherwise be. But even if none of this were true, even if those degrees had not one iota of practical significance, then they would still be worth pursuing. They would be worth pursuing because knowledge is a beautiful thing and because that is a good enough reason to fund something when you live in the richest country in the world.

In other words, if we somehow had to choose between allocating resources to feed ourselves or to fund art history departments, then we would have a real problem on our hands. But that’s obviously not the case here. The burden should be on Rick Scott and company to show precisely how and why the number of non-science majors graduating every year threatens Florida’s economy. Of course, he has not yet done so, and frankly, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for him to do it.

One final point: mathematicians and scientists should take this issue very seriously. Right now, they are fortunate not to have to deal with the amount of cuts that so many humanities and social science departments are threatened with. But if things continue going in their present direction, who’s to say that years from now, those areas of mathematics and physics that are not as conducive to job creation as engineering and medicine won’t be facing the same kind of pressures? Let’s try to nip this thing in the bud while we can, because I have a feeling that it’ll be much easier to explain to Rick Scott why people study anthropology than it will be to do the same for category theory and algebraic geometry.

Peter Ianakiev is a fourth-year in the College majoring in mathematics.