How not to write about higher education, STEM eats literature edition

I was going to write up the first post for our Infomocracy reading, but people keep sharing this Washington Post article with me.  “Meet the parents who won’t let their children study literature” has a lot of appeal for some people, and is so very riddled with holes and contradictions, that it needs a response now.

meet the parents_epicaricacyLet’s take it point by point.  Buckle in, because this might take some time.

To begin with, this article is not about studying.  It is about majoring, a far less sexy headline (although I don’t hold the author to blame for that).  Students at George Mason and elsewhere are free to take literature electives, and are actually required to to some degree.  Meanwhile, beyond the formal class structure students have access to a vast and growing world of humanities scholarship and content, especially online.  So the title (again, probably not Pearlstein’s) is just wrong, but tasty click-bait.

Moreover, the article undercuts itself by mentioning students who *can* major in lit, after all, just doing so while taking another major at the same time:

One reason for the “explosion” of double majors — as high as 40 percent of students at some elite schools — is that students want one major to satisfy Mom and Dad and another to satisfy their own interests, [Debra Humphreys, a senior vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities] says.

One could argue that this leads to different problems, such as overwork, stress, and exhaustion.  Alternatively, we could criticize double majors for sapping student attention from the one they’d like to focus on for grad school and/or jobs, assuming there’s only one.  The article makes neither case.

The article is also not about American higher education as a whole.  Pearlstein is writing instead about a slice of it.  Listen to his exempla, beyond George Mason, his institution (attended not by the hoi polloi, but by “some of the brightest students in Virginia”): Harvard University, “some elite schools” (their words, not mine), and Wake Forest University (endowment $1.148 billion, 2014).  No other state schools appear.  Exactly zero community colleges – the biggest chunk of American high ed – are cited.

We’ve seen this kind of skew before.  Americans are fond of taking the elite for the whole, and we need to stop doing that.  A better title for this piece would be “Meet the parents who won’t let their children study literature at elite universities”.

It’s also entirely about traditional-age undergraduates, students aged 18-22 for whom parental approval matters a great deal.  That’s also a shrinking segment of higher education, as adult (still called “nontraditional”) learners grow in size, and demographics cuts down the teen audience.  When the article references “helicopter parenting” you know that it is really about a subset of academia.

It also fails to recognize another contradiction, based in part on that elite nature:

“A lot of our students feel parental pressure to go into business, economics, medicine,” says Christy Buchanan, who heads the office of academic advising at North Carolina’s Wake Forest University, a traditional liberal arts college that recently announced new programs in biomedical sciences and engineering.

meet the parents _Ben Terrett

Recall that Wall Street loves to hire Ivy League grads, regardless of majors (for example).  Heck, Pearlstein even admits as much:

You’ll find a surprising number of philosophy majors at hedge funds…

Among chief executives of the largest corporations, there are roughly as many engineers and liberal arts majors, in total, as there are undergraduate majors in business, accounting and economics combined.

Bravo for the 1%’s self-sustaining insularity!  I overstate a little, but you see the point.

Think, too, about the double major issue mentioned above.  In other words, the opposition between humanities and jobs is not so stark at Pearlstein wants it to be.

Pearlstein (and the WaPo editors) also conflate the liberal arts with the humanities, a classic mistake.  As any liberal arts college dean will patiently explain, a liberal arts course of study includes the humanities *and* the sciences *and* the social sciences.  It’s interdisciplinary.  But “Meet the parents” switches back and forth between that wide interdisciplinarity and the narrower one of the humanities (trusting “literature” is a synecdoche for its siblings).  It needs to pick one and stick with it.

lionsThe article also misses the deeper impact of both college financing and the great recession.  Consider this passage, which is presumably intended to make these students and their parents feel better: “about one-third of recent graduates have always worked jobs that don’t require college degrees but pay decent wages nonetheless”.  Whew!  …but why did they go to college in the first place?  This is not a happy-making observation.

Moreover, think of the life experience of today’s 18-year-olds, for whom the financial crash and shambling recovery defined their teenage years.  Are we to be surprised that they view getting a well-paying job with some degree of concern, as do their parents?  Recall, as everyone *but* Pearlstein does (at least in this article), the staggering size of student debt, and what that means to a graduate in their 20s.  The argument that students should focus less on job skills and instead explore their passions doesn’t sit comfortably with economic reality.  Unless you’re already very wealthy, which is probably the article’s actual audience.

Also missing from “Meet the parents” is what the humanities have been doing of late.  It positions the humanities (again, not the liberal arts) as passive recipients of pro-STEM and pro-economics campaigns.  Which might be telling.  As some of us in the humanities have been saying for a while, the humanities have done a poor job of selling ourselves.  Where’s our Neil DeGrasse-Tyson?  Is Stanley Fish really our most representative public intellectual?  If we’re right, then humanists need to change up the outreach game… but Pearlstein’s not interested in this issue.

There’s a complementary argument to that one, saying not that the humanities have done poor outreach, but that our politics have been too threatening.  Chris Newfeld, for example, argues that politicians can associate the humanities with feminism, Marxism, anti-racist activism, and other status-quo-threatening political movements, and have therefore defunded public higher education.  Personally I find this overstated (cf my review) but there’s fire behind that smoke.  For instance, Pearlstein publishes this piece after a year of very well publicized student unrest, all based on humanities ideas, most notably gender critique and anti-racism.  Does this play a role in encouraging parents to coax their offspring away from lightning rod majors?  “Meet the parents” leaves this very visible topic off the table.

Let me suspend my critique for now.  The article does, after all, have several positive features.  I applaud its support for the humanities and/or liberal education.  It’s vital to see that a liberal arts education prepares students for multiple jobs and careers, an increasingly normative feature of our economy.  On a personal note, my 18-year-old is staring hard at college with great uncertainty as to his fate; I support his using higher ed as a site for learning who he is and will be.

But you vitiate such arguments by embedding them within an argument so riddled with contradictions, unstated biases, and holes.  Alas, these flaws are too typical of today’s higher education conversation.


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7 Responses to How not to write about higher education, STEM eats literature edition

  1. Frederick Beshears says:

    It would seem that affluent parents can afford to let their child major in one of the humanities, obtain a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts, and then move on to graduate school.

    If their child then decides to shoot for a master’s or PhD in one of the STEM disciplines, then I don’t see what they have to worry about.

    On the other hand, if their child decides to go for a master’s or PhD in the humanities, too, then some affluent parents may start to worry that their child may not be able to find employment outside of academia that fully utilizes their education.

    Alternatively, if their child does find employment in academia, it may be as an adjunct. Many affluent parents realize that college administrators and tenured faculty have discovered that there is a rather elastic supply of non-tenure track faculty, which means that these teachers are often treated and paid rather badly. So, some affluent parents may not want their child to get stuck in such a demeaning position.

    Of course, really affluent parents don’t have to worry about their child’s financial well-being at all, although some may feel that their child should be able to make it on their own at some point.

    • Undergrad prep can be a problem for grad school. Many science programs require serious (single major) undergrad classwork.

      Hm, it would be interesting to see humanists among the 1%. After all, that’s what the humanities is sometimes claiming now.

      • Frederick Beshears says:

        My guess is that if a grad school wants you (i.e. you’ve got good grades and GRE scores and parents who can pay), then they aren’t going to mind if you take the prerequisite classwork after getting your undergrad degree. Of course, this may amount to getting a second undergraduate major.

        My main point is that affluent parents can give their child the financial safety net they need in order to go on to graduate school, even if this means getting a second major. Therefore, their children can get a humanities degree without having to worry about getting a good paying job right after finishing college.

  2. Just wanted to comment on the humanities’ lack of a good PR person, a la Tyson. Agreed, and feel the same way about atheism. Most people who talk about atheism piss other people off. Not a good way to run a PR campaign. I’d say the same is true of humanities PR. Fish–and others–are so condescending that people read them or hear them and think, yeah, I’ll go into accounting, thank you very much.

    For the record, I came to Computer Science via Digital Humanities. I consider the humanities crucial to work in computer science.

  3. profe says:

    Good insights here, especially (for me) about the ways this (and lots of other pieces) are using the “elites” as stand-ins for the bulk of the higher ed population.

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