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For those of us who think at length about universities and the changes they may undergo, it’s a commonplace to refer to the medieval origins of the modern university system. These origins are typically taken to be a bad thing. For example, lecture-based pedagogy is said to date to a time before printing, when that was the only way students would have access to a text. So, the argument goes, it’s an obsolete atavism; there is no reason to keep it around.

I have become increasingly nervous around this line of argument. For it seems to me that a fully modernized university will be one that has no place for the humanities.

Consider what a typical university is in the 21st century. It is a place where young men and women take on punishing and crippling loads of debt which they may spend the rest of their lives repaying, a modern-day form of indentured servitude. They will never know the ability to live day-to-day, to “find themselves” – to, say, fly off to Thailand to teach English on the cheap and then travel around discovering the world. They will need to proceed straight away into a job, and a significant part of their income at that job will not be theirs; it will go to their creditors. (This holds true above all in the United States, of course, but it is beginning to be true elsewhere in the Western world as well.)

The startling thing is that these students take on this debt voluntarily. Why? Above all because, despite the debt loads, in the long run the well educated still earn more for themselves than those who have only the high-school education paid for by the government. But is that worth it? A 2007 British report – commissioned by an organization called Universities UK that advocates for higher education – claims that “the average lifetime earnings of a graduate as £160,000 more than those of a non-graduate with two A-levels.” But it also notes

wide variation in the gross additional lifetime earnings of different degree subjects. For example, the lifetime earnings premium is £340,000 for medicine and dentistry qualifications compared with £51,549 for the humanities and £34,949 for the arts.

£51 549 at current exchange rates is about $80 000. In the US, even a degree from a public university may cost that much over four years; these days, private schools usually cost more. That’s before the enormous cost of interest that one typically pays to cover the incurred debt, let alone the cost of living expenses while one is a full-time student and has little if any time to work for a living. The exact figures may be different in each case; in some cases the humanities graduate may still come out ahead of the non-graduate. But given the great burden of taking on such expense and debt early in life – when one’s earnings are least – it is increasingly difficult to argue the economic benefit of a BA degree. (I’m not even thinking about graduate education here.) If one is going to mortgage one’s future at a young age, it seems increasingly specious to argue that one should do it for the broad-minded education that the humanities provide. One needs the kind of payoff provided by medicine and engineering.

True, the humanities can provide additional skills such as critical thinking and writing, and these are skills that employers value. But employers want them alongside field-specific technical knowledge – they want people with some humanities background but not necessarily humanities majors. And perhaps more importantly, from their perspective there is no reason that these skills should be provided by courses in history or classics or philosophy rather than by courses in critical thinking and rhetoric and composition.

Universities are a central part of the 21st-century economy. Without universities there can be no information technology boom, no biotechnology, no modern medicine, no aerospace industry. Their universities are the reason the Boston and San Francisco metropolitan areas are among the most prosperous and expensive in North America. But it’s not the humanities and social sciences that are creating that prosperity. From an economic perspective, philosophers and historians are entirely unnecessary.

So if one had the kind of free rein that the “forward-thinking” wish to have, where the university system is completely redesigned from the ground up, it is very difficult how one could imagine anything like the traditional humanities as a major component. Programs in writing and in area studies could continue to exist, since those skills can help one’s competitivenss in a wide range of skills, but what of literature and art history? They could continue to exist as “service departments”, providing elective or “core curriculum” courses on the grounds that a well rounded doctor has better bedside manner or the like. But there is no good reason for a young man or woman to undertake a life of indentured servitude to become a more well rounded person – not when one could, for considerably less money, merely fly around the world and read a pile of great books.

I’ve discussed the difficulties of finding economic values in humanities teaching before. But how much more so the difficulties for humanities research? Universities can get rich when their biotechnologists patent a new medicine. But no university ever got wealthy because its humanist wrote a groundbreaking new interpretation of Wuthering Heights. In economic terms, humanities research is a drain on a university’s resources.

So why is it still there? Simply because universities have not been redesigned from the ground up. They retain the vestiges of their medieval roots when the humanities – and theology! – were at the heart of the curriculum. Universities thrive on prestige – the idea that they are regarded by other universities as good universities – and that is what humanities researchers bring. So it can be quite economically beneficial for a new university to involve the humanities, just so that it can be regarded as a “real” university, as opposed to a mere technical school.

That system of prestige, in which the humanities help establish the reputation of a good university, would have no reason to exist if the system were re-created from the ground up. In that case, what we would have would be technical schools for professional fields, with some additional theory within those professional fields to help students retain a deeper understanding of the fields, and some service departments to teach critical thinking, area studies, and rhetoric and composition. And I think the fear is quite justified that, if the advocates of radical innovation were to have their way, that is exactly how universities would end up. It is a truism among technologists that faculty fear and resist change – but they do so, I submit, for good reason.

Humanities faculty members, in other words, are literally conservative. I would add that that conservatism is not despite their reputation for being left-wingers; rather, the two are of a piece. Humanities faculty live in a world that owes its reason for existence to a non-capitalist world, even though they are regularly forced to be in the capitalist world anyway. I think the enduring popularity of Marxism in the academy has a lot to do with this fact. Academics’ pre-capitalist roots make them anxious to imagine a post-capitalist future. And it may well be the slower that universities change, the longer the humanities will stay around.