Once More, the Value of the Humanities

Countless articles, books, blogs, and talks from academe to TED have addressed the question of the “value” of the humanities or liberal arts. The status of this field of knowledge is clearly felt to be in jeopardy. The threats range from anti-intellectualism to political correctness but whatever the problems are, one thing seems clear to the commentators: the humanities is in some sort of crisis. The signs are everywhere: dipping enrollments, cuts in program funding, jobless English majors, roiling campus protests, Obama dissing art history, Peter Thiel doing pretty much everything Peter Thiel does. Amidst the meltdown, a number of arguments regarding the value of the humanities have emerged as an attempt to confront this situation. Desperate academic departments, deans, and professors have eagerly sought these arguments as a way to appeal to students, administrators, or the general public in the hopes of convincing them that the humanities is a worthwhile pursuit and should be supported rather than cut or mocked. There are essentially four different arguments one encounters and all of them are misguided. By focusing exclusively on what the humanities offers while completely ignoring the material conditions of its production and circulation, these arguments endow the humanities with the mystical aura that Marx diagnosed of commodities, in which “productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life.”[1]

The four assessments of the value of the humanities can be categorized as liberal, conservative, neoliberal, and neoconservative. They are in principle mutually exclusive though sometimes deployed in tandem or even expressed by a single individual or institution.

The liberal argument locates the value of the humanities in its capacity to foster “critical thinking.” Though this term is often derided for its vagueness, we can simply define it here as the practice of questioning the supposed naturalness of established conventions, habits, social formations, institutional arrangements, cultural products, and identities. The liberal argument insists that instilling this skill in the citizenry is essential to a democratic and just society, particularly because it makes individuals more aware of the ways power operates. Proponents of this view range from philosopher Martha Nussbaum for whom the humanities produce “complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements,” to her otherwise opponent, Judith Butler, who insists that “an active and sensate democracy requires that we learn how to read well, not just texts but images and sounds, to translate across languages, across media, ways of performing, listening, acting, making art and theory.”[2]

Though it generally doesn’t acknowledge this outright, the liberal argument instrumentalizes the humanities by identifying its use value as a capacity to mitigate the perceived defects of contemporary society. Defenders of this philosophy often advocate for the importance of “ethnic” or “identity” studies departments and see the humanities as oppositional vis-à-vis structures of power, particularly those of class, gender, and race. But among the ironies of the liberal argument is that it is now marshaled to defend the institutional practices of the humanities from students who use its very discourses to critique it. For example, many liberals have adopted the right-wing critique of “political correctness” by countering protesting students versed in a Foucauldian microphysics of power with assertions of the pedagogical importance of hearing different viewpoints.

Nonetheless, this argument is a hard sell when appealing to anxious parents, trustees, or upper level administrators.

The conservative argument insists that the humanities are inherently valuable. These partisans generally scoff at any attempt to defend the humanities based on utilitarian benefits. At most, this camp will allow that the humanities “enriches” or “expands” one’s life and awareness of the world. But the essential basis of this attitude is an art-for-art’s-sake insistence that studying the great works of culture and intellect is its own reward. We shouldn’t have to justify Shakespeare in either political or economic terms. Today, Stanley Fish and Harold Bloom still carry this torch.

Sometimes this is combined with a older liberal assertion that all students, regardless of socio-economic status, should have the opportunity to study the achievements of human civilization, or that the canon should be more inclusive of women, people of color, non-Western, etc. Nonetheless, this conception of the humanities has come under attack since the 1970s from within for its refusal to acknowledge the ways in which social power dynamics dictate what is culturally significant. However, as we’ll see the contradictions of the conservative position go deeper than this.

The neoliberal argument claims that rather than an impractical or indulgent pursuit, the humanities do in fact provide important economic benefits by making individuals more creative, innovative, well-rounded, analytical, and communicative. These are the job skills, the neoliberals insist, that are required in the new global, digital, post-industrial world. Though these benefits may be “intangible,” neoliberal defenders of the humanities will often trot out statistics about the income of individuals who majored in the liberal arts, quote leaders of industry, or offer banal anecdotes. It thus attempts to turn a perceived threat to the humanities to its own benefit. This is probably the most frequently encountered justification of the humanities but it is also probably the most loathsome. It is a particular favorite amongst college trustees and administrators.

The neoconservative argument is the obverse of the neoliberal argument. Like the conservative argument, it denies any practical benefits to the humanities, but unlike the conservative insistence on its inherent value, the neocon argument sees the study of art, literature, and philosophy as a complete waste of time and resources. Neocons deride humanities departments as frivolous, indulgent, and divorced from the “real world.” The neocon argument is clearly the most barbaric. It lacks the hypocrisy of the other arguments in favor of the humanities but is equally blinkered about what the humanities is and how it’s produced. While most frequently encountered amongst right-wing politicians or media personalities this view is occasionally expressed by liberals (e.g. Obama) sometimes even from within the academy (e.g. Robert Reich).[3] The neocons essentially acknowledge that the age of the middle class is over and the future proletariat should spend their time acquiring the concrete skills attractive to current employers. At its most extreme, neocons discourage poor and middle class families from sending children to college, counseling them that learning a manual trade (welding!) will be more lucrative. At most, they view higher education as a form of vocational or technical training. Thus, the neocon argument essentially, though not always openly, insists that the humanities should be eradicated.

Each of these arguments are flawed in their own particular ways but the problem common to all of them is that they reify the humanities, treating it as an abstract yet objective entity that bestows (or fails to bestow) certain things (skills, experiences, perspectives) upon its recipients. In focusing exclusively on the consumer-facing life of the humanities, they each overlook the reality of what the humanities actually is – a product of academic labor. Therefore, it is to the conditions of production of the humanities where we must seek the source of its value.

The Corporate University

Historically, the humanities were valued because its production required a high degree of knowledge that only very few members of society were in a position to obtain. These individuals acquired and possessed elevated amounts of educational and cultural capital which was then invested in the knowledge they produced. The small number of producers and consumers of this knowledge sustained the high value of the humanities through the period of industrialization, from the 19th century to the postwar period.

After World War II, economic changes prompting the rise of a professional-managerial class coupled with the G.I. bill and the 1958 National Defense Education Act swelled the numbers of students taking courses in the humanities, which at the time constituted the heart of the university curriculum. Robust public funding and broadening prosperity enabled universities to fill the ranks of tenure faculty in these departments in the 1950s and 60s.

Starting in the mid-1960s and radicalized by the Vietnam War later in the decade, students revolted against this perceived authoritarian value system of higher education and its purported autonomy from the realities of militarism, racism, and class domination. This challenge soon extended into a myriad of identity-based claims against the very conception of the humanities espoused by the “conservative” argument and lead to a large-scale transformation of many disciplines as well as the emergence of wholly new fields such as gender studies, critical race theory, and postcolonial studies, which have formed the basis of the “liberal” argument. Though such areas of study may have arisen outside the academy or consistently challenged liberal categories and ideologies, their function within the emergent academic mode of the production of knowledge was premised on a liberal assumption about the critical value of the humanities.

Against, or perhaps behind, the backdrop of these debates, an economic transformation of higher education took place in the 1980s. In response to these developments of the preceding decades, policy makers and university administrations began to conceive of college in terms of an investment that individuals and families make in a student’s future. This shift was of course part of a broader privatization of formerly state supported or controlled functions now commonly identified as neoliberalism. However, the ways in which higher education was brought fully under the sway of the market during this period offers perhaps the most perfect example of how economic arguments were used to surmount the political challenges of the 1960s far more successfully than any direct deployment of repressive force.

This narrative played out most notably in Ronald Reagan’s approach to public higher education. As governor of California, Reagan slashed state funding for the state’s reputable system of public colleges and universities, which he cast as an expensive and wasteful social welfare program that bred communism, pointing to political unrest at the University of California, Berkeley. He then set about establishing the foundations of the today’s tuition-based model of funding by rolling back regulations limiting fee hikes. Similar processes were undertaken at the federal level and other states once Reagan became president in 1981. Since then, government funding of higher education has decreased nearly 50%.

So just as demand increased, supply was relegated to the market. In order to maintain the quality of the good they supplied, institutions had to uphold standards of teaching, research, and student acceptance, while also offering the expanding technological, cultural, and social resources increasingly expected of a world-class college or university. This pressure affected both public and private institutions to varying degrees. For example, public universities increasingly sought out-of-state and foreign students who pay significantly higher tuition, effectively abandoning their mandates. Elite non-profit private institutions could afford to protect their value with higher tuitions and lower acceptance rates. For-profit institutions expanded exponentially over the past 20 years to absorb the demand the public sector could no longer serve. Across these different kinds of institutions, students were increasingly viewed as customers who were provided a service for their payments. Administrative functions and positions grew as the task of attracting and satisfying students and donors, as well as managing revenues and investments became a central focus of colleges and universities. This has frequently been termed the “corporatization” of higher education but can more specifically be understood as the subsumption of every aspect of the university by capital – the result of a process that had been set in motion after WW2 and the recognition of the American university’s socio-economic role.

A key challenge faced by university administrations was how to offer an expanding number and array of courses to accommodate the growing demand. The tenure structure of higher education was antithetical to the new system because it required a lifetime commitment with salary, health care, and pension responsibilities borne almost exclusively by the institution. Furthermore, the self-governance structure of tenure maintained an essentially craft mode of production of knowledge by establishing its own research and teaching norms, evaluative processes and promotional procedures. As such, tenure is analogous to the guild system whereby associations of skilled workers control the practice of their craft. Indeed, the guild framework was at the heart of the emergence of the earliest universities during the medieval period in Europe. However, within the emergent system of mass higher education, tenure at all but the most elite institutions became something akin to the hiring of classically trained chefs to fry burgers and fries at McDonalds. The only way this state of affairs could be sustained was through a dramatic increase in tuition and a compensatory expansion of credit in the form of student loans. Between 1993 and 2013 tuition rose at public institutions by 94% and at private institutions by 74% while national student debt has surpassed $1.2 trillion.

Enter the Adjunct

This condition was obviously unsustainable. McDonalds cannot afford to pay top chefs and offer a dollar menu to millions of customers. The same problem beset the university since higher education cannot exist as an expensive luxury good and as a mass-produced commodity. Expanding credit, rather than offsetting this contradiction, fueled a surplus that further drove down the value of the product of higher education (to say nothing of the social consequences of mass debt). Costs at the point of production would have to be minimized even as tuition was raised.

The solution, almost universally adopted by colleges and universities, was to turn to part-time, temporary teaching contracts rather than offer tenure positions. In 1969 about 80 percent of college faculty were tenured or tenure-track. By 2015, the number was closer to 25 percent. Over 70 percent of courses at nonprofit public and private colleges and universities are today taught by adjuncts.

Needless to say, adjunct professors are paid a fraction of their full-time counterparts and lack the job security of tenure. Some estimates have calculated an average pay of $2,700 per course for lecturers. About a third of adjunct professors live near or below the federal poverty line. Most adjuncts are hired to teach one course per semester or quarter and are contracted on a term-by-term basis without any possibility of promotion or entry into the tenure stream. Many make their meager living by cobbling together courses from multiple institutions. They also generally do not receive health insurance, research or conference travel funding, retirement benefits, office space, summer break, or paid family leave from their employers. I do not here intend to offer another account of the plight of adjuncts as an extensive and ever-expanding amount of writing on this subject can be found. Suffice it to say, however, that adjunct labor – that is, the vast majority of the labor that currently produces the product “the humanities” in higher education – is severely undervalued.

These workers are expected – both by the institution and the labor market, which have essentially become one and the same – to have the same basic qualifications and offer the same level of instruction as tenure faculty. Yet they are not provided with the support, resources, or job security ensured by the tenure system. Multiple studies have associated the poor working conditions, lack of support and commitment from the institution, and time constraints experienced by non-tenure faculty with diminished student outcomes, including lower rates of retention and graduation.

Here we can begin to understand the crisis of value in the humanities. As higher education became further determined by market calculations, its values were increasingly subject to quantification. No longer a craft reserved for a privileged elite, the humanities had to be produced en masse for millions of college students. Unlike the sciences, whose standards and values are quantitatively objective or determined by direct applicability outside academia, the humanities are still largely defined from within what could once plausibly be called the “ivory tower.” Though its objects of inquiry – art, literature, media, philosophy, etc. – have been produced and circulate outside the academy, those objects don’t constitute the humanities which is instead a discourse and field of knowledge about such objects established and controlled by specialists. Yet with its rising cost, higher education had to be justified increasingly with the calculable material rewards it could confer upon consumers. Certainly this contradiction has been at the heart of recent debates about the humanities. It is essential to understand, however, that this has not been merely a matter of perspective or ideology – a misidentification of where “value” truly lies. Simply believing that the humanities are qualitatively enriching or vital to democracy will not reverse the crisis. There is no argument for the cultural or use value of the humanities that will suddenly, or even gradually, open the flood gates of funding and restore its position as a vaunted and protected realm of free inquiry and discourse. Insisting that the humanities be exempt from quantification yet still offered as a primary aspect of contemporary higher education is akin to insisting that cars or iPhones be distributed outside of the market.

I will also not here rehearse the many explanations that have been offered for the seeming contradiction of the turn to adjunct labor and the continued rise of tuition. It is enough to point out that in order to accommodate the growth of higher education over the past few decades, colleges and universities have increasingly chosen to spend money on things other than faculty; administrative positions and salaries, staff, consultants, new technology, athletic programs and facilities, dorms, other building projects, cultural and recreational resources, have all expanded greatly during this period while tenure-track faculty positions have essentially flat-lined. Many of these increased expenditures are important and necessary for institutions to adapt to increased enrollments and the demands of a more technologically integrated global society. But to imagine that these investments can be made by reducing the value of the educational labor that produces knowledge – i.e. the core product of the institution – is to play a dangerous game. For, like any product on a market, the value of that knowledge is an expression of the labor that produces it.

Restoring Value

Defenders of the humanities, whether liberal or conservative, hold that the humanities satisfy some human need or desire (whether students are conscious of it or not). All positions further agree that the use value of the humanities cannot be fully quantified. Clearly the humanities is not a basic necessity such as food and shelter that humans require to reproduce their labor power though stated uses of the humanities, such as the capacity to make sense of certain social and cultural phenomena, may of course be useful and advantageous within certain forms of economic activity. Nonetheless, these uses refer only to the phase of value realization – the activation of the value created in the production of the humanities. When the labor of teaching at the university level has been so thoroughly commodified, parcellized, and calculated down to wages per semester or even per credit or classroom hour, the product of that labor is clearly no longer exempt from exchange value.

It should be acknowledged that the humanities, and higher education in general, does not operate within a totally free market framework and is thus not wholly subject to the value system that pertains to the world of commodity production and consumption. For example, when a student pays tuition or fees, that expense is not directly a purchase of the humanities nor are faculty salaries 100 percent financed by student tuition, even at private institutions. Each institution decides how many faculty they will hire and what the compensation will be depending on a myriad of factors such as enrollment numbers, mission statements, endowments, diversity initiatives, spousal appointments, etc. But with the subsumption of higher education by capital that has occurred since the 1980s, these decisions are increasingly dictated by market pressures. Indeed it can be quite easily argued that teaching produces significant surplus value for the institution, which is absorbed by its highest paid employees or invested in its ever more lavish trappings. As has occurred in other sectors of the economy, the labor protections of academia have been eroded over time through a combination of deregulation, automation, and outsourcing. Instead of union-busting, there has been guild-busting, as the power of organized labor in academia was diminished by turning to low-wage temporary contract workers while online teaching further diminished worker control over the product and lowered the number of instructors needed. Division of labor was increased by separating administrative, research, and pedagogical functions, placing further downward pressure on wages in the most labor-intensive sector.

Some believe that this overproduction crisis will resolve when fewer students choose to pursue PhDs and/or institutions limit the number of advanced degrees or programs they offer. This, however, ignores the fundamental shift that has occurred by imagining that the craft mode of production can be preserved at a smaller scale within the mass production of the humanities and higher education in general. Furthermore, it offers no solutions to the tens of thousands of PhD students and adjuncts whose exploited labor currently props up the entire system. Adjunct labor, far from posing a problem in the eyes of college and university administrations, is viewed as the solution.

Therefore, the crisis in the humanities can only be solved in two ways. One is to remove the humanities entirely from the market and finance it as a collective social expenditure. Putting aside the political impossibility of such a venture today or in any foreseeable future, the sheer scale at which the humanities is now produced, which would have to be further expanded if it was socialized, would be an enormous expense. Given that the United States is unable or unwilling to adequately fund primary public education, this scenario is a non-starter. This leaves us with the necessity of contending with the humanities, and higher education in general, as the market commodity it has become.

Therefore the sole remaining way to improve the value of the humanities is to restore the value of the labor which produces it. This is a completely overlooked aspect of the push for adjunct and grad student unionization that is spreading across campuses at both public and private institutions. Contingent faculty at many campuses have voted to join larger organizations such as the AFT and SEIU. By resisting the downward pressure on wages and erosion of job security, unionization counteracts the casualization of academic labor responsible for the loss of value of its product. This means that not only must adjunct unions fight for better compensation and working conditions but also for a reinvestment in the humanities by the university: more courses, smaller courses, curricular prioritization, and increased program funding.

Currently, the divisions in the labor force across institutions, disciplines, and levels of seniority have created impediments to unionization. Furthermore, the tenure-adjunct divide has bifurcated the faculty between the older craft producers and the growing proportion of waged laborers. Tenure faculty, whatever their stated level of solidarity or sympathy for the struggles of the ever-increasing masses of proletarianized academic workers may be, are reluctant to directly intervene or ally with them. One effect of this is a deepening separation between research and teaching at many schools. Unionization must also address and contest this division.

Finally, unions for academic workers must be willing to withhold the value they produce for institutions of higher education by striking. Only then will the source and magnitude of the crisis become clear.

No doubt more than a few readers will feel let down that the final prescription for what ails the humanities is unionization. However, it has been my argument that what we typically think of the humanities is not in fact what the humanities today has become.

To the neoliberal defenders of the humanities who insist that the study of the liberal arts contributes economic benefits befitting a post-industrial, global workforce – I would ask, how much humanities knowledge is required to be an effective producer? How much critical, creative, innovative thinking is necessary for someone to succeed in today’s economy? Because if the humanities are to be exchanged for material economic rewards, then they must have some sort of pre-existing quality that can function as the medium of exchange. That quality – again, the labor which produces the humanities – has been so savagely devalued, however, that its capacity to yield much return on the market is grievously diminished.

To the conservative defenders of the humanities who insist that the study of the liberal arts constitutes its own inherent reward, I would simply ask, “for whom?”

To the liberal defenders of the humanities who proclaim their democratic, civic, and social importance, I would implore them to turn their gaze to the actual production of the humanities today and ask them if they thought it exemplified the ideals they so insist the humanities are essential to upholding?

It is not that these various arguments for the value of the humanities are wrong in an absolute or qualitative sense. In fact, debating these arguments is partly what the humanities allows us to do. It’s that they each abstract the humanities away from what it has actually become in contemporary society, away from the material conditions of its production, away from its embeddedness in the production of value at this stage of economic development. The humanities has furnished sophisticated tools for comprehending the meaning and value of cultural phenomena as expressions of their historical context. The fact that defenders of the humanities have not adequately subjected the humanities itself to that analysis remains a massive blind spot.

Finally, to the neo-con critics of the humanities who contend that the pursuit of any form of knowledge save the most technical and instrumental is wasteful or misguided, I do not know what to say other than if this blind spot isn’t addressed, this is probably true.


[1] Karl Marx, Captial, Vol. 1, Chapter 1, Section 4.

[2] Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Princeton 2010, p.2; A video recording of Judith Butler’s commencement address at McGill University from May 30, 2013 is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFlGS56iOAg (accessed 9/19/2016)

[3] See, for example, Scott Jaschik, “Obama vs. Art History,” Inside Higher Ed, 31 January 2014 https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/01/31/obama-becomes-latest-politician-criticize-liberal-arts-discipline); and Robert Reich, “College is a Ludicrous Waste of Money,” Salon, 3 September 2014 (http://www.salon.com/2014/09/03/robert_reich_college_is_a_ludicrous_waste_of_money_partner/)