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Matt Burriesci: The Arts and Humanities Aren’t Worth a Dime

Against correct answers and workplace utility.


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The Thomas Jefferson Memorial taken by Flickr user Jeffrey
By Matt Burriesci

“The object of the education system, taken as whole, is not to produce hands for industry or to teach the young how to make a living. It is to produce responsible citizens.”

-Robert Maynard Hutchins, The University of Utopia

As one of the editors of the Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins believed that Westerners were all participants in a Great Conversation that began in antiquity. Over the course of several thousand years of that conversation, Western civilization experimented with many different modes of political and economic organization. We have been a polis and we have been an empire; we have lived in feudal monarchies and free republics; we have been capitalist, mercantile, and socialist; we have been democratic and tyrannical. None of these systems has been permanent. Each model has given way to a new one.

The Western World once believed, as Aristotle did, that the political unit preceded the economic one. We changed our minds in the 17th century. John Locke argued that in order to have a government at all, one first had to embrace the concept of private property, and so political freedoms were dependent upon economic liberty. Governments existed for limited purposes, with the consent of the governed, and primarily to defend the property of free citizens. This economic freedom is also what Adam Smith meant when he wrote of the “Invisible Hand.” Smith argued that if individuals were free to choose their own labor, they would choose the most profitable labor possible. By doing so, each individual, guided by a force he or she did not understand (“an Invisible Hand”) would maximize the wealth of the nation.

Today we have come to understand economic metrics as the only units of measurement. We talk about “the marketplace of ideas,” as we “vote with our dollars.”

To greatly simplify matters, this innovation in thought spawned the American political and economic system. For more than 200 years, that system has proved remarkably durable, efficient, and successful.

But as any student of history knows, great powers tend to take things a bit too far. Today we have come to understand economic metrics as the only units of measurement. We talk about “the marketplace of ideas,” as we “vote with our dollars.” Advanced degrees are measured by their “return on investment.” The government needs to be “run like a business.” Patients at hospitals and students at universities are increasingly seen as “customers” or “consumers.” This mindset is particularly noticeable, novel, and poisonous in education: whichever political faction you support, you will find its leaders discussing education as if it were an assembly line, a place where teachers are told to do the exact opposite of what Hutchins desired. Barack Obama and George W. Bush may appear to disagree on much, but they both believe, zealously, that the function of the educational system is to “produce the workforce of the 21st century.”

What role will the arts and humanities play in this brave new world? We cannot measure the value of these disciplines in dollars, so we have decided that they have no value at all, except some token value, like the parsley garnish on a 16-ounce steak. They’re nice, but not really necessary, and certainly not as necessary as STEM. We don’t need more historians, philosophers, and artists: we need students who know how to code, how to write concise business memoranda, and, most ominously, how to answer all our questions correctly. I suspect that many on the political right would agree with President Obama’s glib remark about the value of art history: “I promise you folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” The President later apologized, of course. Yet it’s clear that Obama (an author, orator, and constitutional law professor) believes that the nation would be better off if our citizens engaged less with art, history, rhetoric, and philosophy, and engaged more with plumbing, engineering, and software design.

Even the shrinking pool of champions of liberal education try to argue for its workplace utility. I understand that argument, because I used to make it myself.

Even the shrinking pool of champions of liberal education try to argue for its workplace utility, pointing out that employers actually do want their employees to “write clearly,” “argue persuasively,” and “possess critical thinking skills,” as Fareed Zakaria argues in his new book, In Defense of a Liberal Education. I understand that argument, because I used to make it myself. I made it because I believed it to be compelling to the proper stakeholders: policy leaders, the business community, the general public, or even the governing entities at universities. It has not compelled anyone.

The argument remains seductive because it happens to be true: the arts and humanities are good for business. It’s also true that this tactic may win some battles, but it will ultimately lose the war, as it accepts the same set of metrics for the arts and humanities that are applied in industrial processes and quarterly earnings reports. In framing our argument this way, advocates of the arts and humanities are conceding the larger point: that education exists solely to produce hands for industry. If that is true, then logically all intellectual disciplines should ultimately be judged by the same measures. Career preparation is only a by-product of a liberal arts education, not its primary outcome. A liberal arts education teaches you how to think, not what to think; it produces informed, skeptical citizens capable of absorbing, weighing, and creating all sorts of knowledge. It may not teach you how to change your oil or program a website, but it prepares you to learn any skill, and most importantly, to question how any task is performed, challenge conventional wisdom, and introduce new processes.

In Of the Education of Children, Montaigne wrote:

Tis a sign of crudity and indigestion to disgorge what we eat in the same condition it was swallowed. The stomach has not performed its office unless it have altered the form and condition of what was committed to it to concoct.

And yet we are cheerfully creating a generation of test-takers and regurgitants. The students of today may (or may not) turn out to be the competent and obedient technicians our business leaders desire. We are certainly not training our children to be skeptical or creative. “Teaching the test” means ignoring ethics, virtue, and the lessons of history. Discernment, good judgment, compassion, character, and civic responsibility are worthless as well. None have any “value.”

The lack of such qualities does have a cost, though, and if we would like to observe it, we need only examine the last 15 years of American history, which have been quite expensive indeed: recurring financial crises motivated by limitless greed, trillions wasted on incompetent foreign belligerence, rampant inequality, poor health, and a dysfunctional, unaccountable political system dominated by money. These problems are, of course, not new to the modern era—but they were not inevitable, either. It’s easy to blame those who led us, but as citizens, we have followed—either deliberately, or because we lacked the capacity to make better decisions. If we continue on this path, we will not only continue to make poor choices—we will lack the kind of citizens that we will desperately need to lead us through one of the most disruptive periods in human history: politically, economically, and culturally.

We face a technological revolution potentially as significant as the agricultural revolution. Some 12,000 years ago, that revolution led to the very development of “civilization” as we understand it—a revolution so profound that it even changed our DNA, as wealthy farmers produced far more offspring than the indigent. The technological revolution now underway will again force us to question the way we live together—not which political party occupies the White House, but whether our political and economic systems can continue to serve our needs in an age of unthinkable abundance, increasing inequality, and zero-wage labor.

Already, today, machines are fighting our wars, managing our money, diagnosing patients, engaging in basic legal discovery, and manufacturing our products. Soon they will be driving our cars, flying our planes, caring for the elderly, and even running our corporations. Michael Osbourne, co-director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment at Oxford University, reported that 47 percent of jobs in the United States are at risk of automation in the next twenty years. This comports with similar findings from the likes of Brynjolfsson, McAffee, and a growing chorus of scholars. The machines of the industrial revolution replaced manual or “low-skilled” labor—the current revolution is not going to discriminate. We are going to replace doctors, lawyers, accountants, and hedge fund managers, along with truck drivers, pilots, assembly line workers, executives, bank tellers, and scientific researchers.

Just as information technology changed our relationship with artistic property (such as music, movies, and books), it will soon change our relationship with other refined goods, such as pharmaceuticals, automobiles, and housing. Today one is able to download a gun and print it at a desk. Right now this process is slow, difficult, and expensive. Wait ten years. Soon we will be able to download proprietary chemical formulae and mechanical schematics, the same way we download music. We will print medicine and iPads at our desks. There will be a concerted effort to prevent this from occurring—but ask the (former) music industry how that turned out. Highly sophisticated production is becoming democratized. The revolution will be cheap, fast, and inevitable. My children will see it.

The machines may not destroy us, but it’s quite probable that they will render our labor obsolete, and without the creation of massive new fields of employment.

At first blush, all this may seem to vindicate the champions of “STEM and STEM only.” But consider this: our economic and political systems are built upon the fundamental assumption that property and labor have monetary value. Yet the monetary value of refined goods and even the most highly skilled labor are rapidly being reduced to zero. We may have a little problem. Who will address it?

The machines may not destroy us, but it’s quite probable that they will render our labor obsolete, and without the creation of massive new fields of employment. Of course we will need engineers and software experts in the near future. But you know what we will need even more?

Philosophers, historians, artists, economists, and political scientists.

More than three centuries ago, a generation of philosophers, political thinkers, economic geniuses, and scientists created our way of life. It’s no coincidence that this singular political achievement coincided with the dawn of the industrial revolution. All the prosperity we now enjoy (and all we have enjoyed since the dawn of our republic) is owed entirely to thinkers who understood the inestimable value of philosophy, history, and the arts. How do you measure the value of the ideas of liberalism, capitalism, or the American State Papers? I don’t know, except to suggest that if we must do it in dollars, the cumulative GDP of the United States, since its inception, would be an extremely conservative starting point.

But that is a silly exercise, similar to assessing the value of the Parthenon by measuring its square footage and its proximity to major highways. The actual value of the arts and humanities has nothing to do with money. It is that same value Socrates identified to the Athenians before he was put to death for heresy and corrupting the youth: the value of knowing that we do not know. It is the value of answering incorrectly, and challenging the culture and its conventional wisdom. It is the courage to say, “We cannot go on as we have. We must change. We need a new operating system.”

Like the founders of our country, Socrates understood the value of mathematics—but he did not believe it to be the only discipline worth knowing. The people who designed our way of life certainly read Plutarch, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, as well as Homer, Aeschylus, Cicero, and Shakespeare. That’s how they were able to design our elegant political framework. The wisdom our founding fathers gleaned from the giants is what enabled them to create an exceptional country—the first country in history founded on a set of shared philosophical and political principles.

My children will grow up with far more access, to both material and information, than Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. They will always have every bit of information ever recorded at their instant disposal, but they will not need to be technicians. The technicians will be algorithms. My children will need discernment and courage; they will need sound judgment, an appreciation of the past, and good character. You can’t measure those qualities with idiot tests, or in the dollars that wouldn’t even exist without them. As the value of their labor and property approaches zero, my children will need the arts and humanities to show them the way forward.

They will need to participate in the Great Conversation, not the trivial one.

Matt Burriesci is the author of Dead White Guys: A Father, His Daughter and the Great Books of the Western World(Viva Editions, June 2015), and Nonprofit(New Issues Press, 2015), which won the AWP Award for the Novel. He began his career at the Tony Award Winning Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, and later served as Executive Director for both the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) and the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. During his tenure at AWP, he helped build the largest literary conference in North America, and he served as a national advocate for literature and the humanities. In his work as a consultant, he has interviewed dozens of global leaders in healthcare, scientific research, and higher education. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife Erin and their children, Violet and Henry.

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