Forget the Outdated STEM vs Humanities Conflict

When I say that the Illinois Board of Higher Education wants to eliminate the Humanities programs at out university, people immediately assume that the goal here is to promote STEM disciplines.

That is not the case, however.  The IBHE is not promoting STEM at the expense of Humanities. It is, rather, promoting online vocational training at the expense of everything else. This is not a Humanities vs STEM conflict. This is education vs online vocational training conflict.

People, it’s time to forget the outdated Humanities vs STEM debates. We are not each other’s enemy. The real enemy are those who believe that people who are not very rich deserve nothing but online courses on how to work in sales, cut hair, or repair cars. 

All I can do is repeat that this is the official position of our state’s Board of Higher Ed: public universities where students meet professors in the classroom to learn literature, physics, math, and history should not exist. Only the very rich deserve this sort of education. 

And mind you, I don’t have any access to any secret information delivered through the back channels. This is all being announced very openly. The only reason why you don’t hear about this anywhere is because nobody cares.

15 thoughts on “Forget the Outdated STEM vs Humanities Conflict

  1. The problem is that at my school, it really is a STEM vs. Humanities debate. All of the money is being invested in STEM, and the liberal arts, meanwhile, are not even included in one line of the strategic plan. I was told by the dean of liberal arts that we are going to become a public health university and that was all there was to it. I said, “Don’t you think we should do anything? Fight for liberal arts, for instance?” He shrugged and said, “You can’t fight it, man. You just have to get out of the way of progress.” That was the dean of liberal arts talking. It really chaps my ass that THAT guy is our leader in the humanities.


    1. I don’t want to drown us all here in negativity but I can’t get rid of suspicion that the Humanities vs STEM animosities are being cultivated to weaken both and pick us off one by one. Our university president is also saying that we will just eliminate departments that don’t bring in massive grants. But I am convinced this is just the beginning.


      1. Maybe in some cases it is cultivated. But in general – do not introduce conspiracy theories if something may be explained by stupidity. In my university the dean of the business school has been complaining once on the faculty union forum that humanities departments have to be closed because they do not bring in as much money as they cost, and if company is not making any money it should be closed. I am proud that I confronted him. But this is not the point. Two days later the same dean complained that business school is not making any money since they have to pay so much to their professors… 🙂 🙂


        1. People always assume the Humanities are a money drain because they don’t bring in lots of grants, but they are often quite profitable when you look at the credit hours generated and relatively low salaries paid to get those courses taught.

          But it’s ultimately foolish to look at these things in isolation. Most students want to take courses in a variety of subjects and an institution will ultimately become unattractive if you whittle it down to a small set of extremely popular majors.


  2. Just a couple of days ago I had a long conversation with a rep of a publisher of the textbooks and online solutions. Who was trying to sell me those online solutions because this is “what students want”. And was extremely surprised with my resistance, grounded mostly in “students are not clients” attitude. And my insistence that if, due to budget cuts, I will be forced to teach more students, I’d sooner teach one more course live…
    One the other hand, the issue of universities turning into vocational schools is more complicated than evil libertarians introducing budget cuts. This is not the root of evil, the root of evil if uncontested consumerist mentality and its application to higher ed. Normalization of the idea that the path of least resistance, education narrowly focused on available or fashionable jobs and maximal “customer satisfaction” is an acceptable path. In those circumstances very few universities can afford behaving as some sort of elite institutions insisting on higher standards – the “customers” will just take their business elsewhere. Thus, many universities are de facto turning into glorified vocational schools.
    Besides, any mass egalitarian system tends to strive towards some relatively low common denominator. Universal healthcare resulted in proliferation of doctors who cannot think and who know less than a patient who bothered to read a couple of articles on his particular disease (yes, I know, doctors hate such patients… because such patients offend doctors’ narcissism, based on how much money they paid for education, not on actually knowing something).
    I do not see a solution unless we start thinking differently about these issues. Market economy may be the most effective of available alternatives, but it definitely is not the epitome of psychological health or philosophical development. As long as we treat higher ed as preparation for the job market, which is the ultimate judge of everything, and not as preparation for being an independent thinker – yes, we do have overproduction of people with university and college degrees… And who the heck wants consumers capable of critical and analytical thinking???


    1. Just a couple of days ago I had a long conversation with a rep of a publisher of the textbooks and online solutions Who was trying to sell me those online solutions because this is “what students want”

      I’m only taking online courses because the college decided to stop offering regular courses period in this course I need to take. If I had any other choice, I would not.


      1. It makes no difference to the hucksters.

        You want the course.

        The course is only offered online.

        Therefore, you want an online course.

        Therefore, you want online courses (the rule in capitalism is that anytime you make an economic choice, the market interprets that choice as “more of this, please”.

        That was maybe the single thing of use that I learned in my high school “Americanism vs Communism” class. That every single thing you spend money on is a message “more of this is needed”. It doens’t matter if that’s the message you want to send or not, that’s the message that is understood and acted upon.

        (I’m surprised at how many people I’ve met since then who have no idea that that’s the case, well-educated, economically productive and otherwise economically literate people don’t realize this).


        1. I remember economics. See that interpretation only makes sense in perfectly or near perfectly competitive markets, of which education is not and a degree program is not. But you’re right, that would be invisible from the monopoly or oligopoly’s point of view or the bigger actor in a non transparent market.

          So what’s a practical way to address this? Make the “sellers” miserable and give them “non economic” reasons or “externalities” to behave otherwise since this is not a perfectly competitive market and money doesn’t talk, it mumbles? After all, say I had decided not to take that course. Those people only offering online courses for that program of study have no way of drawing the inference in capitalistic terms (money) that “I don’t want an online course” since apparently words don’t work.


      2. Well, in my (and my department’s case) it was about courses that ARE currently taught live. And thankfully so far we are only vaguely “encouraged” to transform those first-year courses (which are obligatory for everyone in natural sciences and engineering) into online ones, with pressure being limited to periodic admonitions from senior administrators.
        The idea being that each professor would spend less time and effort per student. Which is unethical BS, because students are entitled to the time of a living human professor. And also that “students want this” and “this is innovative, our university must look as innovative as the other guy”…


  3. When I say that the Illinois Board of Higher Education wants to eliminate the Humanities programs at out university, people immediately assume that the goal here is to promote STEM disciplines.
    …Probably because they’ve heard STEM this and STEM that ad nauseum.

    You may yet see MOOCs rise again. :p

    The real enemy are those who believe that people who are not very rich deserve nothing but online courses on how to work in sales, cut hair, or repair cars.
    Sales right now tends to function as “human spam”, cutting hair can’t be done remotely (yet), and repairing cars can’t be done remotely (yet). But yes, there’s a definite sense that a well rounded liberal arts education is not for plebians. Just look at the school reform advocates and where they send their children.


  4. “Hair cutting can’t be done remotely yet.”

    I have been cutting my own hair for well over a year. I learned how to do it watching YouTube videos. I am part of the problem. 🙂


      1. “Something tells me you wouldn’t be doing that if your university paid a decent salary and didn’t overwork its faculty members like it does.”

        That, and I’m cheap! 🙂 I can’t seem to find a decent place that charges less than $100 for a haircut and color. I color my own hair, too. $10, instead of $100 plus tip.


  5. I am reminded of George Orwell’s “The Prevention of Literature” from 1946 …

    “For the moment the totalitarian state tolerates the scientist because it needs him. Even in Nazi Germany, scientists, other than Jews, were relatively well treated and the German scientific community, as a whole, offered no resistance to Hitler. At this stage of history, even the most autocratic ruler is forced to take account of physical reality, partly because of the lingering-on of liberal habits of thought, partly because of the need to prepare for war. So long as physical reality cannot altogether be ignored, so long as two and two have to make four when you are, for example, drawing the blueprint of an aeroplane, the scientist has his function, and can even be allowed a measure of liberty. His awakening will come later, when the totalitarian state is firmly established. Meanwhile, if he wants to safeguard the integrity of science, it is his job to develop some kind of solidarity with his literary colleagues and not disregard it as a matter of indifference when writers are silenced or driven to suicide, and newspapers systematically falsified.”

    “But however it may be with the physical sciences, or with music, painting and architecture, it is — as I have tried to show — certain that literature is doomed if liberty of thought perishes. Not only is it doomed in any country which retains a totalitarian structure; but any writer who adopts the totalitarian outlook, who finds excuses for persecution and the falsification of reality, thereby destroys himself as a writer. There is no way out of this. No tirades against ‘individualism’ and the ‘ivory tower,’ no pious platitudes to the effect that ‘true individuality is only attained through identification with the community,’ can get over the fact that a bought mind is a spoiled mind. Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another, literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes something totally different from what it is now, we may learn to separate literary creation from intellectual honesty. At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity. Any writer or journalist who denies that fact — and nearly all the current praise of the Soviet Union contains or implies such a denial — is, in effect, demanding his own destruction.”

    Plus ça change, plus le change est la même … 🙂


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