Why Studying Sexually Dystopian Themes in 14th-century Epic Poetry Matters… and other thoughts on an education in the liberal arts

Steve Volk, January 16, 2017

Konrad von Altstetten embracing his lover. (Codex Manesse, UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 249v)

In Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities, a film about higher education that came out late last summer, Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, commented, “If somebody wants to write about sexually dystopian themes in 14th-century epic poetry, I think that’s fine.” But, he continued, “I have no earthly idea why taxpayers are supposed to subsidize this or subsidize students to learn it.”

Hess’s comments echoes the sentiment emerging from a considerable number of state houses lately, particularly as governors and state legislators feel emboldened to dictate what should and should not be studied at public universities and colleges in their states. Examples are not hard to find:

Governor Rick Scott (R) of Florida took a pot shot at the study of anthropology on the Marc Beiner show:

“We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state,” he argued. “It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job.”

Speaking with Bill Bennett, U.S. Education Secretary during the Reagan administration, former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) stated: “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine. Go to a private school, and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job…So I’m going to adjust my education curriculum,” he stressed, “to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate with debt.”

Senator Marco Rubio (R), during a presidential primary debate, argued that “Welders make more money than philosophers.” And, he went on to assert, “We need more welders and less philosophers.” (Perhaps he would have said “fewer” philosophers, if he had taken that English course.)


Manuscripts, British Library

Even President Obama has found occasion to observe that students aren’t not going to do well with an art history degree: “[A] lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career,” he offered. “But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” (Obama, it should be noted, quickly apologized for what he called his “glib remark.”)

The link between what one studies and how much one earns seems to be the central, perhaps the only, consideration for many legislators regarding the purpose of post-secondary education. Missouri state representative Rick Brattin (R) recently submitted a bill (HB 266) that, besides banning new determinations of tenure after January 1, 2018, would require public colleges to publish the estimated price of individual degrees, employment opportunities expected for degree earners, and a summary of the job market for each degree, among other things. “Students are getting degrees that have no real-world applicability,” he concluded.

So, we’ve now trashed the study of English, anthropology, philosophy, art history, and gender studies. And this doesn’t even take into account the legislatures that have threatened to cut funding to public higher education institutions in their states because of the summer readings they have assigned (South Carolina, North Carolina), the courses that they are offering (Wisconsin), the research conducted by faculty (Michigan), environmental lawsuits that faculty have filed (Maryland, Louisiana), academic boycotts supported by national organizations (New York, Maryland, Illinois), and the list goes on. One would almost think that the real intent of state legislators was simply to find reasons to slash funding to higher education. (Oh, wait. That’s just what they’ve done. From 2000-2012, state revenues to higher education, adjusted for inflation, fell by 37%.)

So What’s the Link between Liberal Arts and Earnings?

I am, of course, preaching to the choir. But the constant drone from lawmakers, Republican in their overwhelming majority, that the study of liberal arts is not something the public should either care about or pay for needs to be addressed because it is flat out wrong on (at least) two grounds. It is mistaken on a (sigh) factual basis, and it suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the liberal arts. Let’s begin, briefly, with the first.

Would it be churlish of me to point out, as many have, that philosophers actually earn more than welders? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual income for postsecondary philosophy and religion instructors is $63,630, while the median for welders and related fields is $37,420. (Even if one takes the starting pay of philosophy professors, the figures are virtually the same: The average annual salary of welders, cutters, solderers and brazers was $40,040 in 2014, in line with the $39,900 median salary of newly minted philosophy instructors.)

Staying only with financial outcomes of a liberal arts education for the moment (which, again, seems to be the primary consideration of many legislators), here, too, critics of a liberal arts education would do well to examine the research. One thing to keep in mind is whether a student’s education prepares her for her first (i.e., entry-level) job, or for her subsequent jobs, i.e. for the variety of jobs and employment levels that can open over a lifetime if one has the proper training. Richard A. Detweiler, the president of the Great Lakes Colleges Association, recently presented his on-going research at the winter meetings of the Council of Independent Colleges. Detweiler’s research suggests that while liberal arts graduates tend to earn less than others for the first few years after graduation, students who take “more than half of their course work in subjects unrelated to their majors (a characteristics of liberal arts colleges but not professionally oriented colleges) are 31 to 72 percent more likely than others to have higher-level positions and to be earning more than $100,000 than are others.”

Various studies commissioned by the American Association of Colleges & Universities have yielded similar conclusions. In the 2014 report, How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment, for example, authors Debra Humphreys and Patrick Kelly mined data from the 2010-11 US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to conclude that “at peak earnings ages (56-60 years) workers who majored as undergraduates in the humanities or social sciences earn annually on average about $2000 more than those who majored as undergraduates in professional or pre-professional fields.”

So, on evidence-based grounds alone (should anyone still care about facts), the arguments of state legislators who have sharpened their knives against liberal arts majors as a waste of taxpayer money are (shall we say), “just sad.”

What We Do in the Liberal Arts

Yet I would argue that the misunderstanding of what happens in liberal arts higher education, whether deliberate or uninformed, is cause for greater concern. Above all, the argument for liberal arts is not an argument against welders (even though the argument “for” welders has certainly been deployed as an argument against the values of the liberal arts). This equation was perhaps best expressed in the early 1960s by John W. Gardner (1912-2002), President Johnson’s Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and president of the Carnegie Corporation.  Gardner observed that “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water” [Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? 2012 reprint edition (1961)].

There are many reasons to study “sexually dystopian themes in 14th-century epic poetry,” to pick just one of the subjects that legislators have deemed unworthy of the taxpayer’s hard-earned dollar. How many students who take such a course hope to specialize in that field or even become English professors? I have no idea, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s less than one out of a hundred. There are, however, other reasons why a student would take such a course: to learn to read closely and reason critically, to learn to communicate clearly, to develop intercultural skills (perhaps the epic poetry under consideration was French, German or Arabic), to learn to be a better writer, to develop narrative skills, or perhaps, just because one finds epic poetry, or the 14th century, or sexually dystopian themes interesting and worthy of study. The same, of course, can be said about courses in other liberal arts fields.

I am uncertain as to why legislators think that course selection should only be transactional, that students should only take courses in the subject area in which they plan to get a job, particularly in the 21st century, and particularly when young people are likely to hold a dozen or so jobs by the time they are 40. Skill-training for future employment is certainly a consideration of course selection and the determination of majors, but all the evidence points to the importance of liberal arts as developing both broad-based skills as well a set of dispositions that are increasingly important in the world. Not only will these courses help students think critically, communicate clearly, solve complex problems, but they can give them a strong grounding in moral and ethical reasoning, the capacity to work collaboratively and with a wide variety of people, and the ability to take charge of one’s own learning.

Imaginary debate between Averroes and Porphyry. Monfredo de Monte Imperiali Liber de herbis, 14th century.

Imaginary debate between Averroes and Porphyry. Monfredo de Monte Imperiali Liber de herbis, 14th century.

Thankfully, not all lawmakers are so myopic. One visionary model of understanding in this area was recently highlighted in The Guardian (January 9, 2017). In 2013, as Ireland struggled with the after-effects of the financial crisis that crashed its economy, the Irish president, Michael D. Higgins launched a nationwide initiative calling for debate about what the Irish people valued. The answers revealed that it wasn’t stronger banks, more science and math training, better golf courses, or even more jobs. It was a realization that Ireland needed people who were “prepared to ask, and answer, the questions that aren’t Googleable: like what are the ethical ramifications of machine automation? What are the political consequences of mass unemployment? How should we distribute wealth in a digitised society? As a society,” the results indicated, Ireland needed to be “more philosophically engaged.” The result was that for the first time philosophy was introduced into Irish schools in September. As Higgins stressed in a speech last November “The teaching of philosophy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected, and uncertain world.”

Philosophy in the classroom, in the main, is not about graduating more Platos, Kants, and Rawls, but rather, as Higgins emphasized, to offer a “path to a humanistic and vibrant democratic culture.” Similarly, a liberal arts education can give students the ability to enjoy, appreciate, and value what nature has created over billions of years and what humanity has created over thousands of years. That we need plumbers to fix our pipes, welders to build our bridges, and nurses to ease our pain goes without saying. That plumbers, welders and nurses should be able to share in the delight of all that life provides, should equally be true. Studying poetry, anthropology and art history, to the extent that they enhance the value of lives of all members of society and not just those who can afford them, is a public value which is not only worthy of taxpayer support, but is essential if we are to create the kind of society we truly want to live in, a society which respects plumbers and philosophers equally.

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