APT on Nussbaum

by Henry on June 8, 2011

The new Association for Political Theory blog is running a roundtable on Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities at the moment. From the first post:

I agree with pretty much everything Martha Nussbaum is saying. She’s preaching to the academic-robed choir in which I’m a full-throated member. Most days these days I share her alarmist mood regarding cutbacks in the humanities and the liberal arts overall. … But I must if I must say: the book, too often, bores me. I read certain passages, they sound like buzzwordy boilerplate, they sound like declaimed mini-lectures, they sound like cut-and-paste clip-jobs from longer Nussbaum tomes, they sound like academic blah blah blah (with citations), and my eyes gloss over. … It’s too preachy. Its form of presentation is didactic, not Socratic, even as it explicitly celebrates Socratic interactions. … After a few head scratches, I found myself recoiling at such lines as “The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance” (p. 2) or that a humanities-educated person approaches problems as a “citizen of the world” (p. 7). … I would never get away with that missionary language in a small seminar of sly undergraduates (they would mock: what’s the difference between a world citizen and an intergalactic one?).

This is not a unique perception – George Scialabba has a lovely review of a similar Nussbaum text from a decade or so ago, demonstrating that she has been apotheosized into that ineffable blandness which is usually reserved for cross-university faculty taskforces and other such higher entities. Myself, I’ve always been reminded of the description of President Robbins in Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution.

About anything, anything at all, Dwight Robbins believed what Reason and Virtue and Tolerance and a Comprehensive Organic Synthesis of Values would have him believe. And about anything, anything at all, he believed what it was expedient for the president of Benton College to believe. You looked at the two beliefs, and lo! the two were one. (Do you remember, as a child without much time, turning to the back of the arithmetic book, getting the answer to a problem, and then writing down the summary hypothetical operations by which the answer had been, so to speak, arrived at? It is the only method of problem-solving that always gives correct answers – that gives, even, the typographical errors at the end of the book).

She did write well once, so perhaps better yet to compare this book (which I started, but emphatically failed to finish) to what New York would have looked like, had Bill Murray failed in his mission in Ghostbusters I – a wasteland of gelatinous marshmallow, beneath which the ruins of once tall buildings can vaguely be discerned. I probably shouldn’t be as annoyed as I am by Nussbaum’s bad prose and inability to say anything interesting or original. There is a useful social function in repeating the obvious, again and again, in technocratic language. But it surely doesn’t make for fun reading.

{ 85 comments }

1

Chris Bertram 06.08.11 at 4:55 pm

I won’t say much, because at this moment I’m busy incorporating a critique of Nussbaum’s argument in a paper for a forthcoming seminar. However, the central idea of the book, that receipt of a certain type of humanities education is necessary for people to acquire the capacities for empathic imagination that (according to MN) are necessary virtues of democratic (and indeed global) citizenship strikes me as (a) obviously false and (b) insulting to those of her fellow citizens who haven’t been the beneficiaries of such courses. Those given a more technical education are described as “useful machines” as early as p.2. There is very little empirical support adduced for any of the causal claims in the essay which tend to rely on more or less _a priori_ arguments from various educational and psychoanalytical thinkers that Nussbaum likes. The parts of the book that touch on things that I know quite a bit about, such as the research funding regime in the UK and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are hopelessly inaccurate.

2

Henri Vieuxtemps 06.08.11 at 5:07 pm

Is this the woman satirized here as “a classic Soviet bureaucrat who hit all the right buttons at the right times, once or twice straying just far enough outside of the current orthodoxy to rate herself as a bit of a maverick—and by “maverick” I mean in the debased John McCain sense of the word”?

3

Lemuel Pitkin 06.08.11 at 5:25 pm

Wow, that Jarrell quote is perfect, absolutely perfect. Never read Pictures. Must read it now.

4

Matt 06.08.11 at 5:44 pm

I think that a lot of Nussbaum’s problem is that she just writes so damned much. I’m not sure why. (Perhaps she was, or still is, trying to keep up w/ Cass Sunstein- not an admirable goal, I think, given the half-baked nature of much of Sunstein’s work.) But I can’t help but think she’d be twice as good if she wrote half as much. It’s just not possible to produce as many words a year as she does and not have them be either highly recycled, largely trite or banal, or else produced by research assistants. (I don’t think the last is likely in her case.) It’s too bad, as she is capable of doing very good work, and I think she’d do it still, if she only did less.

5

Sad Oddenbum 06.08.11 at 6:27 pm

“Explain the purpose of this intrusion upon my chateau!”
“Your sirenity, resplendent in noble grandeur, we have
brought this yokel before you (the soldier gestured toward
Grignr) for the redress or your all knowing wisdon in judgement
regarding his fate.”
“Down on your knees, lout, and pay proper homage to your
sovereign!” commanded the pudgy noble of Grignr.
“By the surly beard of Mrifk, Grignr kneels to no man!”
scowled the massive barbarian.

6

Russell Arben Fox 06.08.11 at 6:38 pm

That Scialabba review of Nussbaum was deadly accurate. I attempted Cultivating Humamity at one point, and had a profoundly negative reaction to it, which I chalked up to my basic dislike for the cosmopolitan argument in general. His review, when I read it years ago, made me aware that there were better cosmopolitanisms out there; that hers was platitudinous and, frankly, unrepresentative of the better work of someone like Brian Barry, etc.

7

Castorp 06.08.11 at 6:43 pm

It is too bad she didn’t write this as a book for Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series. I find that the format has produced some creative and provocative summaries of things we already know. Consider, for example, Terry Eagleton’s Meaning of Life VSI. Say what you will about Eagelton, but the book somehow manages to feel fresh on a topic that is as old as they come.

8

Western Dave 06.08.11 at 7:33 pm

I think the target audience isn’t us, but, say, my head of school who talks a lot about STEM or STEAM. Or state legislators. And thus it isn’t so much a book that one reads as one waves at the Board of Ed. meeting when they talk about cutting the English or Social Studies curriculum so they can spend even more time on Math because of, you know, China. If you are unfamiliar with that strain of argument look here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cL9Wu2kWwSY although you probably saw it already. Clearly what Nussbaum needs is not another book, but a techno soundtrack and some glossy facts. “Did you know that an informed citizenship is essential to a well-run Democracy?”

9

Castorp 06.08.11 at 7:37 pm

Clearly what Nussbaum needs is not another book, but a techno soundtrack and some glossy facts.

Plus a really great powerpoint deck.

10

Mrs Tilton 06.08.11 at 7:52 pm

I don’t really have much to say about Nussbaum (other than this: anybody that Robert George hates can’t be all bad). What I really wanted to say here is that this parenthetical of Henry’s…

(which I started, but emphatically failed to finish)

… is so lovely that I want to give it a big box of Ladurée’s best macarons.

11

bianca steele 06.08.11 at 8:06 pm

Personally, speaking as a liberal arts graduate who likes to read many kinds of things, but not a literature major, I found her criticism of novels, especially of Dickens, difficult to reconcile with her theories about empathy–though describing them as also “preachy” might explain it. She says a lot about emotions also in Upheavals of Thought, but what was most memorable in that book has turned out to be the detailed description of stoicism, so though her actual argument is that stoicism needs to be supplemented with a recognition of emotions’ value, I found it very useful to find out that people take it seriously at all these days.

12

Anderson 06.08.11 at 8:19 pm

However, the central idea of the book, that receipt of a certain type of humanities education is necessary for people to acquire the capacities for empathic imagination

Maybe “necessary” and “acquire” are too strong, but what about “helpful” and “develop”?

13

Henry 06.08.11 at 9:04 pm

Lemuel – yes you absolutely should read it. It is a very eccentric book – written as though by someone who had heard of the concept of a ‘novel’ but never actually read one, but full of wonderful character sketches like the one above. His letters are well worth reading too, if you can find a copy. From the novel, one might think he was a political conservative. From the letters, he was clearly anything but (his criticisms of American liberal self-satisfaction are from the left, not the right). And a very good friend of Leontiev – one doesn’t think of great economists and great poets as likely to have much in common, but they evidently did.

14

Davis X. Machina 06.08.11 at 9:08 pm

And thus it isn’t so much a book that one reads as one waves at the Board of Ed. meeting…

Worth doing, but not worth expecting much from. Were there a thousand Martha Nussbaums, and they all spoke with the tongues of angels, you still won’t be able to get a BA degree from a land-grant university in twenty years, with the exception of a few brand names.

But then you couldn’t get an MSME from the Collège de Montaigu, either. STEM is the scholastic philosophy/theology of the present age — prevailing belief system and meal ticket, all in one.

15

Gene O'Grady 06.08.11 at 9:11 pm

Henry @ #13, but Keynes and T S Eliot were apparently good friends and Eliot, unlike the self-centered Virginia Woolf, apparently maintained an easy friendship with his wife. (Keynes’ wife, his own being a different story.)

16

Oy. Vey. 06.08.11 at 9:12 pm

Amen, Henry. I haven’t read any good Nussbaum since The Fragility of Goodness. And that one–while important–was a brutal read.

17

djw 06.08.11 at 10:04 pm

The link in #2 is just another reminder of what an embarrassing and egregious hack Mark Ames is. Matt, I think, gets it half-right. She writes too much, and she tries too hard to be a public intellectual. Her most interesting and readable work is her most straightforwardly academic. I’m far from sold on the central argument, but Frontiers of Justice is a challenging and worthwhile read, as was Women and Human Development. While it’s not terribly groundbreaking, I find the framing of her work on shame and disgust a valuable aid to clear thinking on the subject. But other stuff, mostly the stuff geared toward a general and less academic audience, is boring and banal (or, in the case of her absurd hatchet job on Judith Butler in TNR, much worse). I’m pretty skeptical of any grand unified theory of Nussbaum.

As an aside, the APT blog-reading group is a fantastic idea; I really wished they’d selected a serious work of political theory.

18

stubydoo 06.08.11 at 10:52 pm

Perhaps not really on topic but anyway:

“The antithesis between a technical and a liberal education is fallacious. There can be no adequate technical education which is not liberal, and no adequate liberal education which is not technical” – Alfred North Whitehead.

And regarding those sly mocking undergraduates: how many of them are going to end up writing graduate school admission essays dripping with Nussbaumesque platitudes about how the the fact that they checked the standard liberal arts boxes makes them great citizens of the world and such? I’ve certainly seen it done – and successfully to boot.

19

Andrew F. 06.09.11 at 12:52 am

My initial reaction, to be frank, is to call bullsh*t.

Certain norms of discussion and respect are important to a well-functioning democracy. But these norms do not require extensive seminars in the humanities or the liberal arts to be taught or learned. They can be taught and learned in any collaborative endeavor.

It is remarkable to me how so many humanities professors, having themselves most saliently experienced the thrill of open discussion and respectful engagement of opposing arguments in their humanities classes, suppose that humanities classes are the only places in which these things may be found. I have found them in the sciences and in business as well, and to no lesser degree.

I struggle to understand how tomes written in such a spirit can continue to be published, in a time when overwhelming technical complexity and long work hours – not lack of imaginative compassion – are the chief obstacles to informed public opinion.

I am astonished at the grossly grandiose pleas for the humanities, in a time when the health of the economy depends on workers of greater technical skill.

And I am entertained by the author who, having invoked philosophy, writes in the stentorian tones of those who are better able to proclaim the virtues of truly critical discussion than to sustain it.

[This was written at the end of the workday; comment may be harsher than intended.]

20

Gene O'Grady 06.09.11 at 1:00 am

I actually liked the book on Hellenistic thought more than The Fragility of Goodness — but maybe I was prejudiced in its favor by the cover.

21

Harold 06.09.11 at 1:05 am

The humanities are important but the people who defend them are an embarrassment.

22

Bill Benzon 06.09.11 at 1:27 am

I’m guessing that the people who go about defending the humanities are not the people who’ll create a humanities for the 21st century.

23

Dave 06.09.11 at 1:29 am

they sound like academic blah blah blah (with citations), and my eyes gloss over.

Snort.

Harold @21 is right, and I would add that the people defending the humanities are professors. If professors in the humanities can’t mount a persuasive defense, let alone act to defend the humanities against university administrators and politicians, then the humanities deserve to die.

24

rm 06.09.11 at 1:34 am

I’m with Western Dave on the utility of these arguments. Such arguments are not interventions meant to change minds, but rather things that must exist in order to be cited in support of what we already know works.

And I know pro-Humanities arguments are doomed, but on the day the last Elves departed Lothlorien, they made their crafts and sang songs. Someone has to chronicle the doomed arguments of the losing side so future historians will be able to tell what went wrong.

Andrew F and others, yes, humanities classes are not the only places where such valuable things happen, but they are one of them. I think every nurse and police officer should have taken ethics and philosophy and literature, and I think every romantic-headed lit major (God help them) needs some technical writing and math and science.

25

Josh 06.09.11 at 2:18 am

djw, I’ll give you Women and Human Development and the disgust bits of Hiding from Humanity (and a bunch of other stuff, including her 1987 refutation of Allan Bloom); but I couldn’t deal with Frontiers of Justice just ’cause the prose is so bad. And, as has been noted upthread, it wasn’t always thus. Love’s Knowledge is nicely written, although I don’t think many scholars of the fiction she addresses would support her idiosyncratic take on it (was it Hitchens who, writing about Poetic Justice, asked, “Does this author know about irony?”?).

26

Ben Alpers 06.09.11 at 2:21 am

Re: Wassily Leontief–who was my grandfather (pardon the genealogical delurking)–and Randall Jarrell:

My grandparents knew a lot of writers and artists. Herbert Ferber was a good friend, as was Adrienne Rich (she’s more my parents generation, of course, and she remains close to my mom). Poetry was always very important to my grandmother, Estelle. My mom has many memories of Jarrell in Salzburg, where both he and my grandpa taught at the Salzburg Seminar in 1948.

27

Western Dave 06.09.11 at 3:35 am

The people defending the Humanities are not professors. They are parents that don’t want their kids in a testing culture all day every day. Professors are least equipped to defend the humanities because they are it’s closest practitioners. What the humanities needs are a bunch of people who write catchy “How Shakespeare taught me to run a business” type of arguments. As an ex-professor I realize nobody in the academy wants anybody to make these arguments because they kind of cheapen what you all do. But these are the arguments that work. Second best, the humanities are essential for learning how to resist advertising and become an educated consumer by teaching you how to read text and subtext and making you sensitive to how people try to persuade you of stuff. Trust me, stuff like this works at the K-12 level. My history department has actually expanded it’s reach and program making them (even as the school loudly proclaimed itself a STEM school, now STEAM, soon, SHTEAM – or is it shtick?). I really wish we could just say “classic liberal arts education, except with technology” and be done with it.

28

Tony Lynch 06.09.11 at 3:36 am

I am (sadly) reminded here of the “Argument from Marginal Cases (AMC)” used by many (Singer, &c.) to condemn moral humanism.

This will take a moment, but let me explain.

AMC proponent: “You say that human beings are of greater moral importance/value than any anything else in the world, but you need to defend this claim. So what can you do? You point to some property which supposedly distinguishes human beings from everything else, and which is of such a kind or type that it legitimises their differential evaluation. So you point to reason, language, self-consciousness &c. BUT whatever you point too, it is either also found in some other non-humans, or in fact is not possessed by some humans. Therefore you have not defended moral humanism. Therefore it a self-serving prejudice.”

Now, Andrew F, take the argument and replace moral humanism with “the humanities”:

“You say that the humanities are of greater moral importance/value than any anything else in the world, but you need to defend this claim. So what can you do? You point to some property which supposedly distinguishes the humanities from everything else, and which is of such a kind or type that it legitimises its differential evaluation. So you point to reason, logic, dialectical sensitivty &c. BUT whatever you point too, it is either also found in some other disciplinary areas, or in fact is not possessed by all of the humanities. Therefore you have not defended the humanities. Therefore you are engaged in a self-serving prejudice.”

Of course this/these argument(s) can be (and should be) resisted.

Here is how to resist it in the first case:

Moral Humanist: “You say that if I am to value human beings over anything else, then I have to point to some property of the right kind that all and only humnans possess, but that is not so. What matters for me is that they are a fellow human being, fullstop.”

And the second: “”You say that if I am to value the humanities over anything else, then I have to point to some property of the right kind that all and only the humanities possess, but that is not so. What matters for me is that they are the Humanities, fullstop.”

You can call this “prejudice”, but in my view – and you have done nothing to shake it – this is a Properly Basic Belief. Given this I would like you to be mature enough (or not so tired) that you might live with me in the world, rather than trying to eject me from it.

Perhaps this is what Nussbaum is on about?

29

Lemuel Pitkin 06.09.11 at 3:40 am

And a very good friend of Leontiev – one doesn’t think of great economists and great poets as likely to have much in common, but they evidently did.

Fascinating. Sort of like Sraffa and Wittgenstein?

30

Lemuel Pitkin 06.09.11 at 3:41 am

(or Keynes and, like, everybody? He and Eliot apparently had a regular correspondence…)

31

Salient 06.09.11 at 4:05 am

(they would mock: what’s the difference between a world citizen and an intergalactic one?).

Citizen of the intergalactic federation of sentient species get to catch a ride off-world with the dolphins when the throughway-apocalypse comes.

…Folks with a solid humanities education under their belt have probably learned to write pretty well. A humanities education isn’t necessary for that, but then, a technical college education isn’t necessary in order to succeed as an engineer or computer programmer.

An exception to the “have learned to write pretty well” might be the technical craft majors, e.g. art or music performance, whose in-major requirements are low on writing, but these majors are probably best seen as the modern-day apprenticeships.

32

Lemuel Pitkin 06.09.11 at 4:14 am

Also:

Would it be too vulgarly empirical to point out that the humanities share of American BAs has been completely flat over the past 20-25 years?

33

Lemuel Pitkin 06.09.11 at 5:04 am

And Ben Hlpers you could at least tell them who your mother is.

Seems to be Ben has explained his parentage clearly @26. It’s kind of cool, I guess, to be the grandson of Leontief. But, um, who cares?

34

Lemuel Pitkin 06.09.11 at 5:05 am

(Sorry, the sneer is directed at “an adult”, not at Ben Alpers, who’s contributions here are consistently valuable, from where I’m sitting. Whoever his parents are.)

35

djw 06.09.11 at 5:10 am

Josh, good call on the Bloom take-down. One of my favorites. And yes, Poetic Justice clearly belongs on the “ugh, what the hell” pile. I haven’t seen Hitchens’ review of it, but that seems promising.

I’ll grant the prose in Frontiers of Justice isn’t great, but I was pleasantly surprised by freshness with which she applies the capabilities approach theory of justice to the three substantive areas. I was afraid she’d be somewhat mechanically applying a theory that doesn’t really fit (in the animals case) and fits rather too easily (in the disabilities case) but in both cases along with global justice her application of the theory was refreshingly creative, clever, and unpredictable. This gets me over the clunky prose issues. If you have any familiarity with the theory at all, the first hundred pages are a dreary, useless retread.

36

John Quiggin 06.09.11 at 5:32 am

Matt @4 I favor any explanation that puts the blame on Sunstein.

37

dsquared 06.09.11 at 6:24 am

when they talk about cutting the English or Social Studies curriculum so they can spend even more time on Math because of, you know, China

As I mentioned on my own blog a while ago, university administrators demonstrates here a curious understanding of the nature of international trade. China produces 600,000 engineers a year. On the other hand, China has never produced a single decent television game show. Any sensible assessment of comparative advantage would suggest that we should react to the emergence of China as a scientific and technical power by producing fewer engineering graduates, not more, and more humanities and media studies graduates, not fewer.

38

Lemuel Pitkin 06.09.11 at 7:05 am

when they talk about cutting the English or Social Studies curriculum so they can spend even more time on Math because of, you know, China

In the United States, at least, there has been no reduction in the share of “English and Social Studies” majors over the past 20 years. Just saying.

39

Lemuel Pitkin 06.09.11 at 7:07 am

(not to disagree with dsquared here — that would be foolish! — but simply to suggest that before we think too much about the social significance of the terrible decline in the humanities, we might want to explore whether the humanities have in fact declined.)

40

Steve Williams 06.09.11 at 7:31 am

‘(not to disagree with dsquared here—that would be foolish!—but simply to suggest that before we think too much about the social significance of the terrible decline in the humanities, we might want to explore whether the humanities have in fact declined.)’

I think the point is that university vice-chancellors want to cut the humanities, not that they have been over the last 20 years – I was under the impression that more people had been choosing humanities in the UK in recent years, but I might be wrong.

41

dsquared 06.09.11 at 7:59 am

In the United States, at least, there has been no reduction in the share of “English and Social Studies” majors over the past 20 years.

Yes, thankfully the collective wisdom of crowds and the catallaxy of undergraduate students have resisted this insane dash to engineering. The UK is in a bad place though because the government is cutting humanities teaching funding as a result of Lord Browne’s report. Lord Browne was an engineer (and former chief exec of BP), and I found myself uncharitably wondering whether having had more of a background in the humanities might have helped him to an understanding that “it’s a bad idea to be in the closet for thirty years and then to lose your job and destroy your reputation over a really silly blackmail scandal”.

42

John Quiggin 06.09.11 at 8:33 am

In Australia at least, the problem isn’t a fight between the Two Cultures. Everything serious (humanities, physical science, social science) has lost ground to a rising tide of more or less bogus vocational degrees – tourism, event management, communications (the main income source for what were once called English Departments) and so on. And that’s not even thinking about law, which (as taught here anyway) has about the same intellectual content as the other vocational degrees.

43

Mike Otsuka 06.09.11 at 10:17 am

dsquared @ 43

“The UK is in a bad place though because the government is cutting humanities teaching funding as a result of Lord Browne’s report.”

It’s also cutting non-humanities teaching funding, and to roughly the same extent in absolute terms. Some humanities subjects (e.g., performing arts, European modern languages) will fare worse than the hard sciences as the result of the new funding arrangements. But most of the rest of the humanities will fare a bit better.

44

Davis X. Machina 06.09.11 at 10:37 am

…(even as the school loudly proclaimed itself a STEM school, now STEAM, soon, SHTEAM – or is it shtick?)…

It would be METHS….

45

Andrew Fisher 06.09.11 at 10:43 am

@Mike 45

I was going to say the same thing. Ld Browne has actually arranged a large funding boost for the humanities (albeit the students will have to pay much of it back later).

46

Steve LaBonne 06.09.11 at 10:56 am

To echo John Quiggin’s comment @44 (which has much application to the US as well), if people in serious academic disciplines make the vulgar mistake of imagining that their colleagues in the other “culture” are their enemies, they will find themselves fighting one another on deck while the ship founders in a sea of trashy vocational programs. (See, I can do metaphors even though I’m a scientist! ;) )

47

Henry 06.09.11 at 10:56 am

Lemuel – “an adult” was our resident lunatic troll Seth Edenbaum, posting under a pseudonym. His comments have been spam-binned – not sure how they got through in the first place.

48

Chris Bertram 06.09.11 at 10:58 am

Lemuel above … it may be a matter of the timescale you pick. So Derek Bok, _Our Underachieving Colleges_ has

bq. Given a choice, students have deserted the traditional disciplines in droves. Today 60 percent of all college seniors are majoring in a vocational program. Whereas substantial majorities once chose a liberal arts concentration, only about one-third do so now. (p. 283) -[ refs to National Center for Education Statistics, _Undergraduate Enrollments in Academic Career and Vocational Education_ (Feb 2004) p.1. ]

49

Andrew F 06.09.11 at 11:08 am

Tony Lynch @28: You can call this “prejudice”, but in my view – and you have done nothing to shake it – this is a Properly Basic Belief. Given this I would like you to be mature enough (or not so tired) that you might live with me in the world, rather than trying to eject me from it.

Sure Tony, but in that case the proponent should show me what she likes or values about the humanities rather than making a series of weak instrumental arguments in their defense. I agree with your basic belief, but to persuade others Nussbaum needs more Harold Bloom’s popular work and less Richard Rorty op-ed essays. Show me why it’s great to spend an evening with Milton. Persuade me. But if instead of demonstration and persuasion, I’m given dire warnings about the future of global democracy, I will roll my eyes, politely direct the author to the political science department where there is actual research on that kind of thing, and thank God that I wasted little time on the author’s book.

dsquared @39: China produces 600,000 engineers a year. On the other hand, China has never produced a single decent television game show. Any sensible assessment of comparative advantage would suggest that we should react to the emergence of China as a scientific and technical power by producing fewer engineering graduates, not more, and more humanities and media studies graduates, not fewer.

Comparative advantage is not static, China does produce game shows (they simply aren’t watched much in the UK or the US), and game shows are unlikely to be a viable source of large national employment (you have the same “problems” of scaling – from an employment perspective – that you might with hedge funds). Moreover there’s plenty of demand for engineers here; the educational system just isn’t producing them. Nussbaum’s book, for all the praises it may sing of the public square, seems curiously insulated from reality beyond academia.

Besides, technical education isn’t limited to engineering. Doctors, for example, in the US are some of the best trained in the world. Perhaps we should do a better job producing more of them at cheaper cost by streamlining the educational system. But that will require a more rigorous scientific and mathematical curriculum – and, yes, that may cut into the funding and time for seminars on “Post-Structuralist Gendered Identity in Neoliberalized Post-Industrial Culture(s): What Games of Thrones Can Tell Us.” But there’s a reason why there is demand for engineers and doctors, and precious little demand (from the vaunted public square) for seminars like that.

50

dsquared 06.09.11 at 11:31 am

game shows are unlikely to be a viable source of large national employment

The media industry is a genuine industry and it is both a large employer and a large source of export earnings for the UK. Sheffield Forgemasters, to take an example from my blog, is roughly the size of Cash in the Attic when considered as an economic entity.

But there’s a reason why there is demand for engineers and doctors, and precious little demand (from the vaunted public square) for seminars like that.

This assertion not remotely supported by data on college enrollments. I note that while “Small Liberal Arts Colleges” exist all the way across the USA, there are basically no economically viable “Small Engineering And Technology Colleges” which exist without significant state support.

51

chris y 06.09.11 at 11:43 am

Given a choice, students have deserted the traditional disciplines in droves.

I wonder if this is entirely true as asserted. The other thing that has happened is the massive growth in undergraduate education, associated with – let’s not go into chicken and egg here – the growth of credentialism in trades which would historically not required a degree. How many of that 60% would have been in college a generation ago, rather than pursuing apprenticeships or other forms of on the job training? Or to put it another way, perhaps the same proportion of the population is interested in following a liberal arts education as ever, but they have been joined in their institutions by an equal or greater number of people who would historically have preferred to follow their vocations by other means.

52

Zamfir 06.09.11 at 11:46 am

Nearly all engineers (and doctors, of course) were trained as such in school, the far majority of them when they were young.

If these schools were producing too little of them, shouldn’t we expect large efforts by the industry to retrain humanities graduates to become engineers?

53

nick s 06.09.11 at 12:26 pm

and precious little demand (from the vaunted public square) for seminars like that.

You mean, for the seminar that you dreamed up as a cheap strawman? No shit, Sherlock.

54

Alex 06.09.11 at 12:34 pm

I think D^2 once said that, on the grounds that there are an enormous number of Chinese, a small but not negligible percentage of them are professional economists, and effectively the biggest customer for Chinese economists is the Communist Party (whether directly, via the Government, or through its vanguard party role in industry and academia), the median economist today is a communist and the dominant intellectual tradition in economics is Marxism.

Similarly, the world’s leading TV producer in terms of ratings is almost certainly a Chinese civil servant. Come to think of it, he’s a commie as well. (He being chosen advisedly.)

Of course, there’s a difference between purely domestic TV and exportable TV in much the same way as oil that gets consumed in the country it is extracted in isn’t the same stuff for purposes of political economy as oil that is available for export.

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Andrew Fisher 06.09.11 at 12:36 pm

I have remorse about my post (now) number 45 which added nothing to the debate.
The pre-Browne figures for a price group D (i.e. Humanities) student of high social class and good A-levels (to avoid complication with WP and retention premia) in England are: HEFCE Base price £3,670, of which £1,345 is assumed fee; however the actual fee will be £3,375 so revenue per FT student is notionally £5,700. In reality, from 10-30% of students will fail HEFCE’s non-completion rule and will not be eligible to draw down HEFCE funding, so the actual revenue is in the range £5,000-£5,500 per student.

Post-Browne the revenue per student will be £9,000 in many cases.

In both cases, this revenue has to cover OFFA compliance activity as well as the teaching and learning.

At the margin, though, the difference is much greater than this makes it seem. Assume that the marginal humanities lecturer retires, and the Dean decides not to reappoint. In the pre-Browne system only the £3,375 of actual fee per student is likely to be lost revenue to the institution, because HEFCE pay the rest as a block grant subject only to quite broad student number tests rather than actually paying out on a £-per-student basis. Post-Browne, however all the revenue stands to be lost.

If the Dean was thinking pre-Browne the cost of replacement was £60k so (allowing for central contributions) I need £120k of revenue to cover the post, but actually the HEFCE money is coming anyway, so break even is an SSR of about 35:1. Post-Browne exactly the same calculation gives us an SSR of about 14:1. The example is stylised, but I hope it adds a it more information than my previous attempt.

I can’t see how the humanities could be anything other than a major profit centre on the Browne model, especially as they remain a high-status option for UK Undergraduates, and therefore in fairly strong demand.

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average_jane 06.09.11 at 12:41 pm

Chris @51 is right to point out that shares of degrees can be misleading. I believe it’s true that the fastest growing major at both the undergrad and masters levels is business. (My august institution offers no fewer than 4 undergraduate business degrees, and seems to have no trouble populating them.)

The facile explanation for the rise of the business degree is that undergraduates are increasingly instrumental, and moreover are looking for a “cake” degree that they can combine with sports, frat life, and membership in OPPEC.

That explanation seems not only unfair to (most) of our undergraduates, but also blind to shifts in the demand side. Employers, seeking to outsource the training function as much as possible, are increasingly requiring management degrees. And, the occupation of management (or its subsets — e.g., financial managers, etc) are attempting to professionalize by tying the practice of management to a formalized body of knowledge that is transmitted through universities … much as doctors and lawyers did in an earlier era.

The upshot is that at least some of the increase in the business degree (in absolute and relative terms) is probably driven by young adults who in prior eras might have attempted to work their way into management via the mail room. With that option largely closed, undergraduates with managerial ambitions have little choice but to go to college.

Of course, it’s also fun to blame Gordon Gecko.

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dsquared 06.09.11 at 12:41 pm

Similarly, the world’s leading TV producer in terms of ratings is almost certainly a Chinese civil servant.

This is actually almost certainly true; a friend of mine once appeared on “Foreigners Singing In Chinese” on state TV and thus has been seen on TV by more people than the winner of “Britain’s Got Talent”.

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Lemuel Pitkin 06.09.11 at 1:14 pm

Chris@48-

Yes, there was a real decline in the number (and even more in the share) of college students subjects in the humanities, and in most of the sciences. But that decline took place *entirely* between 1970 and 1980. Over the past 30 years, degrees in pretty much anything you could call liberal arts have been stable or increasing. I simply don’t think there’s any reasonable way to interpret these numbers as a crisis. A crisis thirty years ago, that was dealt with successfully, ok. But not a crisis today.

But my main point is just that it would be nice if these discussions were a little more empirically grounded.

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john b 06.09.11 at 1:21 pm

The media industry is a genuine industry and it is both a large employer and a large source of export earnings for the UK. Sheffield Forgemasters, to take an example from my blog, is roughly the size of Cash in the Attic when considered as an economic entity.

Aye, Sheffield Forgemasters is an irrelevance. Rolls-Royce and EADS aren’t (especially now that EADS is in the UK solely because people in Flintshire are better at designing and building aeroplane wings than anyone else, rather than because of back-scratching political deals).

The things the UK is good at, and will continue to be better at than China for the lifetimes of most people commenting here, are things that are *really bloody hard to get if you’ve not grown up with it* rather than *fairly easy to copy if you’ve got a half-decent education*. This includes the MAXTREME end of engineering, the non-commodity aspects of media and financial services, and education.

The last of these, obviously, is why any politician who suggests cutting back on student visas (or on education more generally) is not only a bigot, but also a lackwit.

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Lemuel Pitkin 06.09.11 at 1:35 pm

4 year English degrees granted, 1980-81: 31,922
4-year English degrees granted, 2008-09: 55,462

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Zamfir 06.09.11 at 2:55 pm

@john b, wing design is in Bristol. But isn’t your point really agreeing with D^2? Game shows are a prime example of something where the people involved have a lifetime of cultural influences aiding them. Engineering on the other hand is taught in schools, including the MAXTREME end I presume.

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rm 06.09.11 at 4:29 pm

As an English professor, my own personal prejudice is that there should be fewer English majors because those majors, poor souls, aren’t all of them planning very well for getting jobs, and so I think we should encourage as many of them as possible to choose the tech writing and teaching concentrations rather than Literature, and not be too self-interested about keeping as many as possible in the major (while recognizing that other majors are also not necessarily getting jobs either, no one is). And keep bringing in alumni who have taken their English degree into other fields and succeeded. And (in my ideal world where I could make it happen) get the pre-meds and nurses and police and firefighters and Golf Course Management majors to take upper-level Literature courses Because They Should.

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Jason 06.09.11 at 4:48 pm

Nussbaum’s relatively recent takedown of Harvey Mansfield’s book on manliness is almost as good as the Bloom one. Soft target, natch, but a thorough squishing thereof.

Sample passage:

He repeatedly tells us that “all previous societies have been ruled by males,” producing Margaret Thatcher as a sole recent exception. Well, one has to forgive Mansfield for not adducing Angela Merkel or Han Myung-Sook or Michelle Bachelet, since these female leaders won their posts, presumably, after his book went to press. One might even forgive Mansfield for not knowing about female heads of state in Mongolia, Argentina, Iceland, Latvia, Rwanda, Finland, Burundi, Bermuda, Mozambique, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Dominica, Malta, Liberia, and Bangladesh. Those are relatively small countries, and one would have to be curious about what is going on in them. But one can hardly overlook Mansfield’s neglect of the very newsworthy recent or current female leaders of New Zealand (Jenny Shipley, Helen Clark), Turkey (Tansu Ciller), Poland (Hanna Suchocka), Norway (Gro Harlem Brundtland), France (Edith Cresson), Canada (Kim Campbell), Sri Lanka (Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and now her daughter), the Philippines (Corazon Aquino, Gloria Arroyo), and Pakistan (Benazir Bhutto, a government major at Harvard who might have taken Mansfield’s class). And what might one say about Mansfield’s utter neglect of Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir, two of the most influential politicians of the twentieth century? Don’t we have to think, in the face of these cases, that his assertions are some sort of elaborate charade…

The whole thing can be read online if one googles “nussbaum mansfield” and goes to the first link. Mansfield’s letter responding to the review, which can also be found online, is amusing in a tragicomic way.

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bianca steele 06.09.11 at 6:36 pm

For a long time I’ve thought it would be amusing to rank college majors on how annoying, misguided, or outright nuts their poorer graduates and dropouts turn out to be. The Internet seems like a good place to do that research.

I do find it unusual that the debate carried out publicly among American professors seems to assume UK-like specialization rather than US-like distribution requirements.

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1000 Names of Vishnu 06.09.11 at 6:37 pm

Its form of presentation is didactic, not Socratic

well, thats part of the problem—many bureaucratic Nussbaums, and few authentically philosophic Socrates

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R.Mutt 06.09.11 at 7:18 pm

The whole thing can be read online if one googles “nussbaum mansfield” and goes to the first link.

Google gives different results depending on the user. In my case the first link for that search brings me back to this thread…

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R.Mutt 06.09.11 at 7:29 pm

(That was stupid, I googled with quotes… Still, it’s really true that google does not give everybody the same first result.)

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leederick 06.09.11 at 9:46 pm

“I can’t see how the humanities could be anything other than a major profit centre on the Browne model, especially as they remain a high-status option for UK Undergraduates, and therefore in fairly strong demand.”

Exactly. The people doing all the pious complaining and sermonising about the importance of non-monetary values don’t seem have much of a problem fixing the fees at £9k for degrees which cost roughly £5.2k to provide. Not for Profit, LOL.

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Harold 06.09.11 at 10:21 pm

Nussbaum is not pithy.

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Chris Bertram 06.09.11 at 10:53 pm

_fixing the fees at £9k for degrees which cost roughly £5.2k to provide._

You see remarkably precise in your figures. Of course some subjects which have had their higher banded funding withdrawn will cost quite a lot more. So either they will close or they will be cross-subsidized within universities. Or at least you’d better hope so, if you still want drama, archaeology or music degrees.

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Andrew F. 06.10.11 at 1:58 am

dsquared @50: The media industry is a genuine industry and it is both a large employer and a large source of export earnings for the UK. Sheffield Forgemasters, to take an example from my blog, is roughly the size of Cash in the Attic when considered as an economic entity.

Yes, I agree that the media industry is a genuine industry – and it includes quite a few people with very technical skills which require education other than a humanities or media studies degree.

More to the point, though, the media industry will never be able to provide the scale of long-term, well-compensated employment for “humanities and media studies” (your terms) degree holders that various industries will for holders of scientific, engineering, and business degrees. In fact I think a humanities degree, or a media studies degree, is unnecessary and of little help in entering most career tracks even in the media industry. The exceptions – a theater degree for acting, a dance degree for dancing, etc. – are such long shots that I wonder whether advising someone to major in them is any more responsible than advising someone to forget his studies and focus on basketball.

This assertion not remotely supported by data on college enrollments. I note that while “Small Liberal Arts Colleges” exist all the way across the USA, there are basically no economically viable “Small Engineering And Technology Colleges” which exist without significant state support.

Liberal arts colleges offer degrees in the sciences and engineering and they all receive enormous state support. But in any case, this isn’t the right metric to use. If you want to measure demand for a particular degree, look at the average and median earnings, and percentage employed, of various degree holders in the years following graduation from college.

nick s. @53: You mean, for the seminar that you dreamed up as a cheap strawman? No shit, Sherlock.

Well done Watson. I confess that the seminar I named, a semester-long deconstruction of a series of fantasy novels recently made into an HBO series, is in fact fictitious. However, given the reasonably good track record for other HBO series making themselves the subjects of undergraduate courses, the fall semester of 2011 may make liars of us both.

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Lemuel Pitkin 06.10.11 at 2:27 am

given the reasonably good track record for other HBO series making themselves the subjects of undergraduate courses

Right, that track record. You forgot the link, so remind me: Who keeps the statistics on this? How many undergraduate courses were based on HBO series last academic year?

I mean I know this is well documented — there’s a track record! — but for some strange reason, in the academic institutions I’m familiar with, the proportion of undergraduate courses based on HBO series seems to be pretty stable around zero.

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dsquared 06.10.11 at 6:05 am

More to the point, though, the media industry will never be able to provide the scale of long-term, well-compensated employment for “humanities and media studies” (your terms) degree holders that various industries will for holders of scientific, engineering, and business degrees.

And yet it does!

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Andrew Fisher 06.10.11 at 9:03 am

@leederick and Chris.
I am able to be precise for two reasons (1) funding English HE is my professional area, so I have the relevant data to hand and (2) those data are for revenue, not costs.

Costs are more murky and of course in certain institutions specific subjects are more costly to deliver (they may have a more senior staff profile, or teach humanities in a particularly energy-inefficient building), but in others they are less. The price-bands are reviewed from time to time by looking at average data on costs – I can dig out the last review if you are sufficiently interested so you can see the variance, but of course all institutions (except the timy number with substantial endowments) tend to see their costs settle towards what HEFCE have in fact allocated as revenue over time. You can see this happen when subjects such as Psychology are re-banded.

The equivalent figure for price group C (e.g. music, dance) would be base price £4,771 so £6,800 notional revenue, but after non-completion as little as £5,800 in some cases (non-completion ha a greater effect here because HEFCE funding represents a greater proportion of the revenue).

Andrew F@71 I couldn’t possibly disagree more. the demand for a degree programme is the number of people who wish to study that programme. If some of them value the on-programme experience or non-financial outcomes more highly than financial outcomes that is their perfect right as consumers. The income of graduates tells me precisely nothing about the demand for any programme at my institution and as a matter of simple fact some of my highest-demand areas (e.g. dance) have some of the lowest post-graduation incomes reported. I am not trying to persuade my VC to offer less dance in response to these data.

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Chris Bertram 06.10.11 at 10:32 am

Andrew Fisher, having managed departments in those areas myself, I have to say that your figures strike me as being on the low side. A department of drama, film and tv, for example can have really substantial equipment costs once you get into theatres, cameras, editing suites etc. Are you taking some average which encompasses departments with very different ranges of of activity?

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Harold 06.10.11 at 1:41 pm

“our city is equally admirable in peace and in war. For we are lovers of the beautiful in our tastes; and our strength lies, in our opinion, not in deliberation and discussion, but that knowledge which is gained by discussion preparatory to action. For we have a peculiar power of thinking before we act, and of acting, too, whereas other men are courageous from ignorance but hesitate upon reflection.”

If we wish to justify the humanities, it is helpful to look to how they were defended in the past. The Athenians put on plays in public contests in which the citizens, not professional actors, acted. They valued deliberation and debate in the public square and in private, as Plato demonstrated in his dialogs, looking at questions with detachment from every side in a spirit of detachment before deciding on an opinion. They despised the narrowness both of narrow money-grubbing and of militarism.

Up until recently it was common to justify the humanities as providing moral edification , through examples of good and bad conduct as shown by history and fiction (historical fiction and the epic were looked upon as most edifying). Nussbuam’s contention that fiction makes us more compassionate is a variation of this.

I think an important function of the humanities allow us to try out different opinions and cognitive possibilities, and to assimilate information (including emotional information) in a way that is playful, pleasurable, safe, non-threatening (since people often do find new information and situations threatening and repellent as well as exciting). Thus, they have a cognitive function in fostering that spirit of detachment which is necessary for looking at a question from all sides, or at least from different aspects — this is the critical spirit bequeathed to us by the Greeks as essential in a democracy. The humanities are a social activity, strengthening social bonds in the present and connecting us with those who have lived in the past.

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Andrew Fisher 06.10.11 at 2:32 pm

Chris@75

The HEFCE figures are the same for all institutions everywhere pretty much, except for London weighting. As a matter of policy they do not reflect the different costs of different institutions. The two main sources of HEFCE revenue I have ignored are (a) research – if your units did well in the RAE this would obviously have a large positive impact on funding and (b) widening participation where the HEFCE funding is not so generous but could still be material, especially if you recruited mainly older students from high-risk groups.

It is true that some particularly high-end media programmes are permitted to claim a proportion of their FTE at Price Group B, whilst some small and specialist arts institutions have institution-specific funding to reflect their higher costs.

Finally non-HEFCE income (such as Overseas or PG fees) could be relevant.

You also use the past tense. My figures are for 2011/12 so if you are thinking back pre-cuts that might have an impact.

The example was stylised and simplified I admit, but the only point I was originally trying to make is that absent a catastrophic fall in applications, the humanities will be better funded in 2012/13 than they were in 2011/12. For performing arts even a catastrophic fall in applications would leave most courses oversubscribed, so I think their position is very secure. If any discipline is under threat, to my mind it is Business.

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leederick 06.10.11 at 8:09 pm

“You see remarkably precise in your figures. Of course some subjects which have had their higher banded funding withdrawn will cost quite a lot more. So either they will close or they will be cross-subsidized within universities. Or at least you’d better hope so, if you still want drama, archaeology or music degrees.”

I’m using the HEFCA’s costing data from the latest price group review – median cost per fte. I doubt there will be any cross-subsidisation – every Group B or C subject costs less to provide than the original average £7.5k fee estimate; everything except medical subjects and physics costs less that the £9k virtually everywhere is aiming for.

http://www.hefce.ac.uk/learning/funding/price/review0607_0809.pdf

Chris always seems so nice and so reasonable that I always feel bad about writing my comments in a really provocative say. But I genuinely do feel outraged about this. First, the government always describes fees as a ‘contribution’ toward the cost of a degree, when in reality most students will be paying not only all the current cost, but a substantial markup on top. That seems misleading. Second, almost all universities will be ratcheting up fees as high as they can, even though we know they can provide the education for less. If they really were that committed to what many of their academics preach wouldn’t at least one say, we know we can provide an education for £5.2k so we’re just going to charge cost. Good on the LSE for going for £8k, but what we’re mostly getting is exclusionary cost inflation and subjects used a profit centres. It’s a disgrace.

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Mike Otsuka 06.11.11 at 6:42 am

Leederick @ 78:

the government always describes fees as a ‘contribution’ toward the cost of a degree, when in reality most students will be paying not only all the current cost, but a substantial markup on top. That seems misleading.

That’s a very valid point. At Oxford, where the cost of the labour-intensive tutorial-based teaching of a (HEFCE Band D) humanities student is £15,000, and much of this is cost covered by endowment income, higher fees will actually contribute towards the cost of the teaching they now receive. But outside of Oxbridge, where endowments don’t subsidize (much) teaching, higher fees will more than cover current costs.

Your £5.2K figure, however, is out of date. This reflects the cost of humanities teaching averaged over 2006-07, 2007-08 and 2008-09, rather than current costs. At the very least, you should have chosen the most up-to-date 2008-09 figure on the pdf to which you link, which is £5,680. Even that figures is out of date, but it’s pretty close to the £5,931 that universities now receive per Band D student. And I suspect that 2010-11 costs are even closer to £5,931.

As Andrew Fisher notes @ 74, “The price-bands are reviewed from time to time by looking at average data on costs … but of course all institutions (except the tiny number with substantial endowments) tend to see their costs settle towards what HEFCE have in fact allocated as revenue over time. You can see this happen when subjects such as Psychology are re-banded.”

If there’s a case (outside of Oxbridge) for raising fees so that universities end up receiving more than £5,931 per Band D humanities student, you’re right that it isn’t that this is what is required to cover actual costs. Rather, it will have to be that this is what is needed to provide a decent humanities education at higher cost that covers the pay of enough permanent faculty to teach lectures and seminars at a decent student/faculty ratio.

If humanities departments receive more money in order to teach their students, they will spend this money, e.g., by hiring temporary lecturers on 9 month contracts rather than paying part time teachers by the hour, or by hiring a permanent entry-level lecturer rather than a temporary lecturer on a 9 month contract. They won’t pocket this money in the form of dividends, as your ‘profit centres’ language suggests.

(LSE’s fees, by the way, will rise to £8,500, not £8,000.)

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Chris Bertram 06.11.11 at 8:27 am

_If they really were that committed to what many of their academics preach_

I think you’ll find there’s a considerable gap between the social and political commitments of university senior managements and my own.

You seem to be more on top of the figures than I am, so perhaps I should just ask you some questions:

1. You, and Mike O. seem to be assuming that extra money flowing into humanities departments (if it really is) will be available to those departments to spend. I would expect it to be “taxed” away to pay for central university services and to support teaching in other areas of universities, myself. (At least on past experience.)

2. The capital budget for universities has been cut dramatically. Presumably some of the additional fee income will go to plug this gap.

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Chris Bertram 06.11.11 at 8:48 am

… and a brief addendum to my last.

You seem to be assuming that the increased fee income will and should be going on tuition costs. Yet we know that US institutions, charging much greater fees than we do, spend such income not on tuition but on “enhancing” other aspects of “the student experience”. I would expect the same thing to happen here, especially if universities have to compete for students.

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Eamonn 06.11.11 at 5:42 pm

Returning to Nussbaum for a moment, unlike djw @17 I think her assault on Butler is superb, one of the best things she’s written

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Andrew Fisher 06.11.11 at 6:54 pm

Chris @81 you are right about capital universities will have to generate more cash from their operations for this purpose. On the other issues – how much reaches frontline departments, and how any additional money is spent – I would expect wide institutional variation. It will be interesting to see.
My experience of institutional decision-making is that the political or ethical commitments of the senior management make rather little difference. Over time, the decisions that preserve the organisation as close as possible to it’s current state tend to be the ones that get taken. Universities are bureaucracies after all.

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Andrew F. 06.12.11 at 11:36 am

Andrew Fisher @74: Andrew F@71 I couldn’t possibly disagree more. the demand for a degree programme is the number of people who wish to study that programme. […] The income of graduates tells me precisely nothing about the demand for any programme at my institution and as a matter of simple fact some of my highest-demand areas (e.g. dance) have some of the lowest post-graduation incomes reported. I am not trying to persuade my VC to offer less dance in response to these data.

On demand we actually agree. My point concerned demand from employers, not from students.

As to student demand for degrees of dubious value, it is true that many students demand them.

But, speaking bluntly, 18-22 year olds are often quite stupid when it comes to long-term investments. They frequently pay for college with borrowed or gifted money, and consequently fail to fully appreciate the risks and opportunity costs of investing in a degree like dance until it is too late.

Moreover, I wonder at the long-term sustainability of a project that relies heavily on a disconnection between the immediate payors of the university bill and the consumer of the university services, especially when the outcome is so much less than optimal.

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Andrew F. 06.12.11 at 11:37 am

Sorry, the entire first paragraph of the above, from “Andrew Fisher 74:” to “response to these data.” should be italicized.

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