Defending the liberal arts against the ignorance caucus

Many of you probably heard about North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory’s attack on liberal arts education on the Bill Bennett Old-Timey 180-Minute Hate Radio Program.  He argued that the state should invest its money in fields like “mechanics” instead of liberal arts degrees, because vocational training will help North Carolinians get jobs.  (Is he unfamiliar with his state’s community colleges, which offer a range of Vo-Tech programs?  I guess so.)

Have you ever heard of that old story about Winston Churchill refusing to engage in a battle of wits against an unarmed man?  McCrory’s comments were more of the seat-of-the-pants playing-to-the base pulled-out-of-his-a$$ kind, and far from a well-crafted policy paper or legislative proposal, but historian Lisa Levenstein of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, has published a vigorous response arguing for the value of the liberal arts, and even for the value of women’s studies programs in an op-ed at

Today’s labor force also depends on work by women, who now comprise about half of all U.S. workers. Yet McCrory exhibited particular disdain for courses in “gender studies,” suggesting that this discipline has nothing useful to contribute to the challenges confronting North Carolinians. At UNCG, teachers and students in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program explore pressing issues ranging from breast cancer to homelessness. They create strategies to eradicate domestic violence and analyze how women’s labor force participation fosters global economic development.

Graduates of the program have built meaningful careers as counselors, sign language interpreters, teachers and advocates for the mentally ill, positions that not only contribute to the economy but also foster the well-being of our communities. These students are workers, parents and engaged citizens, and they make our lives better.

McCrory and many others in his party would benefit from taking stock of the Election Day losses suffered by Republicans such as Todd Akin, whose comments about “legitimate rape” incited a firestorm of controversy. If more Republican candidates had taken courses in gender studies, they might have retained their jobs last November.

Levenstein knows whereof she writes.  In December, she published a major essay co-written by Cornelia Hughes Dayton in the Journal of American History called “The Big Tent of U.S. Women’s and Gender History:  A State of the Field,” in which they review a voluminous literature and describe its major themes and contributions to American history as a whole.  Don’t miss the twenty pages of comments from other scholars that follow it, too.  (In case you’re wondering:  yes, my book is discussed, and I’m even quoted!  Page 809 if you’re interested.  I’m really flattered to be in such good company.)

I’m sure this essay was put to bed months before Todd Akin became a feminist Punchinello, but his emergence reflects one of the major trends Levenstein and Dayton discuss, that of reproductive labor:

In the past decade, historical scholarship has pointed to the centrality of reproductive labor not only in constructing economic relationships but also in shaping U.S. politics writ large. This emphasis reflects the politicization of women’s reproductive labors in late twentieth-century struggles over immigration, welfare for single mothers, eldercare, abortion, and birth control. Those present-day controversies have encouraged women’s and gender historians to probe the transnational history of reproductive politics and ask new questions about how reproductive labor shaped the political and economic structures of the past.

Prescient, no?

I’m glad Levenstein picked up the other end of the rope.  These arguments against the liberal arts are even more common than tornadoes in Tornado Alley, but they need to be engaged.  However, I am keeping my finger off the panic button, as one of the lessons of the Great Recession I’ve learned is that in times of economic uncertainty, students gravitate towards the disciplines that offer timeless value rather than vocational training.  I can’t tell you the numbers of students I’ve worked with who have either switched to History from a Journalism major, or have decided to take a second B.A. in History, because of the collapse of journalism.

History is what students study when they like to read, but think that majoring in English will look too flaky for their law or professional school applications.  Furthermore, History is what a lot of politicians majored in while they were planning for that law school-state rep.-congressional-gubernatorial track, so it’s appropriate that historians take the lead in defending the value of the liberal arts more generally.  There may be short-term political gain in joining the ignorance caucus, but my guess is that the professional study and teaching of history will outlast them by decades, if not centuries.

14 thoughts on “Defending the liberal arts against the ignorance caucus

  1. All of these story trajectories are starting to nest together, somehow, but I wouldn’t want to try to synthesize them just yet. The American Bar Association is moving strongly along the line of recent panic button driven proposals to chop legal education down to a form of app-driven technical training, so there goes legal scholarship. Somebody should hack-in platform-wide and post historical grades and majors for every state legislator in America. A lot of this, I think, is just the big payback. (I now know why the conservative Senator Buckley was so solicitous about student confidentiality rights back in the early 1970s).

    But wait, a journalistic probe into western Montana finds young people in the Mountain West moving to the left not just on “social” issues (which I guess now refers to beating your friends at buying virtual cows on virtual farms with actual money) but also on more traditionally economic policy questions. The northern Rockies GOP caucus is hogging access to the panic button out there while preparing to retreat into Idaho. The center may hold, but then again, it may not.


  2. The attack on liberal arts resembles previous attacks on universities, global warming, Muslims, etc. Way too many right wingers employ hate and resentment as their main weapon against the 20st and 21 centuries. The argument isn’t logical or even emotional. It’s downright a skirmish.

    For various reasons, liberal arts is on the defensive. The cost of university education has skyrocketed. Engineering, law and medicine are in a better position to pay off debts. Students with engineering or law degrees have lower rates of unemployment.

    All this doesn’t permit anyone to decide that some knowledge is redundant.


  3. So the same folks who say that the liberal arts have to prepare people for “jobs” – and they do, if indirectly – are also fostering “right to work” legislation, defunding public education, and then declaiming universities when they raise tuition to meet the needs of the public?

    And, really? This is a guy who wanted to be a teacher, but then decided to lay pipe for Duke Energy. Ugh. This is like watching the first half of Stand and Deliver, and switching halfway through to an Exxon infommercial. Show me a commitment to something other than profit.

    These people are shameless. And there isn’t an easy fix here, because you can’t latch onto them in a debate, or have a real exchange of ideas. They go to their echo chamber, and we go to ours. (Of course, I like ours better).

    I’d write an op-ed, but what I really want is a way to do as H-Ann encourages: to take a stand defending the liberal arts in a way that makes a fricking difference.


  4. That is funny – and good. See, I’m from Jersey, where acting like a Teamster is a part of the daily mano-a-mano grind. I could see how it would help on campus, but I’d not thought about operationalizing it in our combat with McCrory and his fellow travelers.


  5. Koshembos, it’s time to start reading Campos at Lawyers Guns and Money. Law is a dead-end field unless you go to a top 10 school and even then, you still might not be able to pay off your debts.


  6. That’s true–there are a lot of bitter law school grads out there. Then again, I think some of them were reckless in borrowing tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars for sub-par degrees. Whereas if many of them had taken their undergrad studies more seriously and gotten the grades that would have got them into better law schools, they’d have more & better employment options.


  7. Whenever I hear some politico say that all higher education should be directly job-oriented, I think of the Turkmenboshi (the “head Turkmen,” former president-for-life of Turkmenistan Sapurmurad Niyazov). He gutted Turkmenistan’s Soviet-era universities, saying that engineering and math, as well as his own spiritual opus the “Ruhnama,” were the only subjects worth studying. And you all know how famous Turkmenistan is today!

    Since I don’t have a blog or a regular newspaper column, what venues can I use to help promote the value of what we teach? This morning in InsideHigherEd a high school teacher was saying that professors have the duty to protest that “no child left behind” education is really damaging our students. Where do we protest — write to our congresspeople? Run for the school board? Who in this vast bureaucracy should we be talking to?


  8. Kate–I didn’t mean in my comment about CCs to disparage their contributions to lib arts education. I really appreciate the CC transfer students I work with at my 4-year uni, as I believe they get a better grounding in survey courses than most undergrads who start at my uni get. (Taking a class capped at 25 at the CC, versus intro courses that have 100, 200, or more students in them? For those students who take advantage of the opportunity, there’s no question that the smaller sections are better.)


  9. California has its own version of “Pathways” called the “Transfer Program.” Different name, but judging by Kate’s linked article, exactly the same sh%t.

    I’m not hopeful about mobilizing students against it, though. Fewer requirements, fewer hours, and faster transfer equals less work and less time for students. As an old prof of mine once said, education is the only place where you can give people less than they paid for and they love it.


  10. It’s a problem. Should we view medical education as a public good or a private acquisition? Clearly it’s both, but what’s the right formula? Rural areas are very underserved in this country.

    Although quite frankly, most doctors live right at or above their means. That’s definitely a problem of overconsumption and entitlement, in my view. They could probably pay back their medical debt faster if they didn’t buy a mini-mansion during residency, and a fancy car.

    I’ve been told by mortgage brokers that doctors are their favorite clients of all: they make a lot of money, but they spend even more of it.


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.