In Support of Humanities

Today I had the privilege to listen and briefly talk to Prof. Andrew Bacevich of Boston University. This recorded lecture seems to capture some of the content and the essence of his talk: Link to the Talk(You can also listen to his interviews with Phil Donahue on Bill Moyers show here, and a pop-culture version with Stephen Colbert here). Briefly, he highlighted some of the issues surrounding dramatic shifts in general attitudes around the militarization of domestic and foreign policy engagements, sanitization of nasty business of killing and torture with euphemisms like “targeted persuasion” and “enhanced interrogation” masking the very essence of war with bumper-sticker glorification of the persona of a soldier. He mentioned the disconcerting fascination with global military supremacy amongst this country’s leaders, democrats and republicans alike. A burgeoning defense budget of ~700 billion USD for this year paid for at the cost of domestic heath care, educational programs, scholarships, hiring freezes, scientific research, infrastructural development, lack of support for troops who come back home after losing mental and physical health to misguided military engagements – all for facilitating unnecessary global preponderance. In the end, he offered a set of ten prescriptions for a revised framework that hopes to facilitate general human prosperity by reconsidering and restructuring the military mindset.

At one point during the lecture, Prof. Bacevich mentioned that he is baffled with general apathy and lack of societal self-reflection on U.S.’s foreign policy decisions and their consequences.  However, he never really got a chance to address the fundamental reasons that drive such apathy and lack of self-reflection. After hearing this, I went and talked to Prof. Bacevich about the role universities and academic institutions can play in facilitating a generation of informed, reflective citizenry and I’ll elaborate on the theme of that discussion henceforth.

It appears that most of the challenges we face today – issues like intolerance towards people with varied sexual orientations or morphological features, geopolitical conflicts around fictitious and transient anthropogenic boundaries of nation states, ideological debates around abortion and stem cell research, and the apathy around misguided military interventions or destruction of our own planet – they are all a direct consequence of ignorance, lack of critical thinking, dogmatic ideologies, and primitive tribalistic attitudes. In 2014, when we can remotely drive on the surface of Mars, investigate geochemical composition of Titan in extraordinary detail, and explore exoplanets for signs of organic life, why do such primitive residuals of our primate existence continue to infect and incapacitate the intellectual growth of our societies? What are the factors that result in such an unfortunate state of social and political affairs? We may not have to look too far away for answers. Following data from the annual reports of the Office of University Planning, Budgeting, and Analysis for the year 2010-11 indicates the paltry annual attrition and the graduation rates at the University of Montana:

Graduation-retention-rate-UM-2010-11

One may ask, why so many students are leaving the University without finishing their education? There may be multiple causative factors of course, one amongst which seems to stand out. Finances. A quick look at the University’s budget book highlights the unsettling trend – The University continues to finance more than 60% of its total budget through tuition and fees from students.

reventue-from-Tuition

How do we expect 18-something undergraduates to undertake a financial commitment of hundreds of thousands of dollars it takes to learn and earn an education? Isn’t it society’s responsibility to afford higher education to its citizens without regard to their financial circumstances and ability to pay? Can we realistically expect academic excellence and high graduation rates when students work 40 hour weeks to pay for their tuition fees? With hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt after graduation, is it really a surprise that people have little time to spare for sociopolitical engagements?

But can we really blame the Universities for this mess? Why do universities need to raise funding from the end “consumer”? Take a look at the snapshot of Total (federal, state and local) budget breakdown for categories of interest below. It’ll be unfair to criticize the universities for passing the buck onto teenage aspirants and their parents when we as a society choose to invest more in questionable military expeditions than providing higher education to our children.

Total-budget-2014

(Clicking the image will take you to the data source compiled on a private website. Actual data is taken from following sources: GDP: Fed. Budget: Hist. Table 10.1 ; Federal: Fed. Budget: Hist. Tables 3.2, 5.1, 7.1 ; State and Local: State and Local Gov. Finances). 

This, in my opinion, is the root of a number of problems. When universities are forced to raise revenue on their own for their day-to-day operations, when more than 60% of university’s budget is supported by student tuitions and fees, and when student enrollment and graduation rates display a downward trend, they are more likely to engage in economically viable practices. Practices such as larger class sizes, using under-paid and over-worked graduate students instead of hiring full-time faculty as cheap labor for teaching lower level undergraduate classes – TAs who are likely to fail to ignite the imaginations of young people. In such scenario, universities are also likely to engage in promoting trades and faculties that generate revenue at the cost of programs in literature, history, philosophy and humanities in general – the very programs that help us transition from our apish state of primate existence to that of rational human beings. And now you may ask once again – why don’t we have a more reflective society – a society that critically analyses its current actions through the lenses of history and empirical evidence? Why do students drop out of university system before they can finish their education and develop such critical skills? Why would you invest thousands of dollars to go to a class of hundreds of students taught by an unexperienced TA? Why would you want to end up in debt or work countless hours flipping burgers learning history, literature or philosophy when you can invest the same money in some fancy business degree that offers lucrative future yields? Why indeed?

Without appreciation of history, we’ll keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Without great works of literature, we may never escape our inherent biases and subjugations. Without philosophy, we may never really truly understand ourselves or the world around us. A scientist is merely a handicapped mechanic without foundations in epistemology and general philosophy. Without well-developed faculties of reasoning and critical thinking, we may never rise above our apish selves and the curse of greed, war, inequality, poverty and hunger will haunt us for eternity. Unless we revise and re-prioritize the role and rightful place of humanities in our education system, we will remain an apathetic, ignorant society in lack of self-reflection and we’ll have no one else to blame but ourselves. Until such time, none of those ten policy prescriptions will mean anything more than scribbles in your lecture notes Prof. Bacevich.

Tarun Gupta
Missoula, MT

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