UT-Austin Issues Strong Defense of Humanities

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John Willingham is a regular contributor to HNN.  He has an MA in American social/intellectual history from the University of Texas at Austin.  He is the author of The Edge of Freedom, A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution.  http://edgeoffreedom.net

Under attack from critics who want to apply market-based principles to public universities in Texas, the University of Texas at Austin issued a report on July 6 that strongly defends the humanities and chides marketing proponents for trying to impose rigid and simplistic solutions on higher education.

“The higher education experience is not akin to shopping on iTunes or visiting Banana Republic,” the report says.  Called “Maintaining Excellence and Efficiency at the University of Texas at Austin,” it is the work of Randy L. Diehl, Dean of the UT College of Liberal Arts, with assistance from the executive leadership team at the College.

“Curricula are based on the wisdom of traditional educational experience, accrediting agencies and state requirements—not simply the momentary wants of the consumer.”

Some of the most strident critics, including Jeff Sandefer, who has operates a private MBA school, and Richard Vedder, the director of the business-oriented Center for College Affordability and Accountability, have derogated the value of humanities research.

Vedder repeatedly derides the large number of articles written about William Shakespeare.  Claiming that there are 21,000 articles on the Bard, Vedder asks, “Wouldn’t 5,000 have been enough?”

The report responds directly to Sandefer, challenging his “suggestion that specialized academic articles with limited readerships lack real value.  This outlook could affect scholarship in such fields as mathematics, natural sciences and social sciences in which seemingly narrow findings have the potential to change human understanding.

We are especially concerned it will inhibit research in the humanities and we take issue with the idea that the value of research can be judged by its immediate impact or reduced to a monetary figure.

Historians, philosophers and economists from the Greco-Roman periods through Voltaire, Hume, and Adam Smith, for example, all influenced the American founding fathers. These scholars’ impact was not fully known for decades or centuries, just as the value of much of today’s scholarship can’t be measured immediately.

Only rarely is the effect of historical scholarship as rapid as it was for David Oshinsky, a UT historian and author of Polio: An American Story, which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2006.  The book helped spur the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to allocate $200 million towards eradicating the disease worldwide.

But Oshinsky had already been a publishing scholar for almost twenty years by the time Polio was published.  Even UT’s current critics might credit a Pulitzer Prize-winning book with “value,” but what about his 1983 book,A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy? The critics likely would have downplayed or even ignored that book’s immediate impact, but what if Oshinsky’s immersion in the history of the forties and fifties, while working on the McCarthy book, was what guided his later research toward the history of polio?

If market measures had been applied to this scholar’s “productivity” at some early point in his career, he might not have had the resources or time to produce the work that will help change the course of a killing disease throughout the world.

The UT report not only defends the humanities, but argues that efficiency and productivity in a university cannot be disconnected from quality.  Using business parlance, the report says the “bottom line” for UT-Austin is to provide “a first-class education while spending our resources responsibly and efficiently.  Separating those two goals is like separating research from teaching:  it serves the wrong bottom line.

Similarly, treating students as customers, offering them a ‘product’ designed to win positive reviews and then rewarding the most popular instructors will neither challenge students in meaningful ways nor foster the deep learning and skills they will need throughout life.

“The classroom is not a marketplace,” the report concludes.

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