An Endangered Species Up in Arms

The number of students taking humanities courses is plummeting, and financing for liberal arts education is being tea-partied to death.

— by Donald Kaul

Donald Kaul

As many of you already have intuited, I don’t know everything. Nobody does, I suppose. More importantly, I don’t know everything about anything.

I’m what used to be called “a generalist,” someone whose knowledge in any direction is a mile wide and a quarter-inch deep.

Sad to say, we generalists are an endangered species.

Everywhere, the pressure is on young people to specialize. They’re also being urged to concentrate on the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math. Why? These are disciplines that can predictably get you a job upon graduating from college.

A Florida task force last year went so far as to suggest that college courses in the humanities — literature, history, the social sciences, the arts — be made more expensive than STEM courses just to steer students away from them.

Kaul-Humanities-tom.belteThis idea has the humanities people up in arms.

Duke University President Richard Brodhead headed a study group of educators, business leaders, artists, and politicians that recently delivered a report to Congress decrying the attitude that studying the humanities and social sciences is a waste of time.

“This facile negativism forgets that many of the country’s most successful and creative people had exactly this kind of education,” he said.

The report comes at a time not when hordes of students are crowding into “wasteful” humanities classes, but rather when attendance in them is plummeting and financing for liberal arts education is being tea-partied to death.

Our higher education system is forgetting what education is supposed to do in the first place.

I entered college as an engineering student — a mistake on the order of Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. I was lucky though. I made a last-minute escape to the English department where I was not only allowed to read novels for fun but also find out about things I was actually interested in — history, psychology, architecture, and the arts.

I hasten to add that I had no idea what I was going to do with this information. Neither did my father, a tool and die maker who wanted me to join one of the more practical professions — preferably dentistry. He wanted me to make a living without being in danger of killing someone.

That didn’t appeal to me either. Like many students (particularly English majors) of the 1950s, I wasn’t going to school merely to learn a trade. I was out to become an educated person — well-read, witty, sophisticated — like someone in a Noel Coward play.

Unfortunately, Coward never tells you how his people earn a living. When I graduated with my English degree firmly in hand I had no answer for my father’s question: “What now, bigshot?”

Thus, I drifted into journalism. It wasn’t an unfamiliar story in the newspaper business of the time. Back then, it served as a refuge for failed novelists, playwrights, and other flotsam bearing a liberal education.

The thing is, it worked out fine for me. I led an interesting life, had a lot of fun, and earned enough to raise a family in modest comfort. Moreover, at one time or another, I pretty much put to use everything I had learned in college.

And that’s my point — a point these STEM people miss — there’s nothing wrong with learning for its own sake. Knowledge doesn’t go to waste. It comes in handy somewhere along the line, sometimes in the most unlikely places.

I realize that the world now is a very different place from the one I grew up in. Back then, you didn’t have to be a hedge fund manager to work your way through school for one thing. But another difference is that workers today change jobs, even professions, four, five, or six times during their working lives.

Specialists who know only one thing might be left out in the cold when circumstances change. Generalists have the intellectual tools to adapt.

Actually, we’d be better off if more of our politicians had read a few more good novels. Or if perhaps they’d written a poem or two.

Knowing something is always better than knowing nothing.


OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. OtherWords.org  Photo credit to Tom Belte/Flickr

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This Week in Congress

Congress returns from recess, and will deal with the student loan interest rate this week, along with a spending bill for federal energy and water programs.

In the Senate —

The Senate adjourned in late June without passing a bill dealing with student loans, but is hoping to make progress this week. Two bills will be considered:

  • The Keep Student Loans Affordable Act (S 1238): would lower the 6.8% interest rate on subsidized student loans back down to 3.4% for another year.
  • – The Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act (S 1241): would set the rate at that of the 10-year Treasury note plus 1.85 percent. –

The Scoop: Neither of these bills has yet to be summarized on THOMAS.  The bipartisan bill is purported to be much closer to a version passed by the House in June. Passing it in the Senate would likely set up a House-Senate conference that could work to reach an agreement on a final bill. Passage of the one-year extension, however, could delay progress on the issue further, as House Republicans have indicated they are not likely to advance a simple extension.

In the House — 

In the House, members will deal with a major spending bill for 2014:

– The Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act(HR 2609):  This bill spends about $30 billion on energy and water programs in the federal government, and is nearly $3 billion below the spending level for 2013.

The House will also consider:

  • The National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act (HR 761): aimed at boosting the production of strategic “rare earth” elements. (Summary on Thomas)
  • The FOR VETS Act (HR 1171): donating federal property to veterans’ organizations. The “Formerly Owned Resources for Veterans to Express Thanks for Service Act of 2013” or the “FOR VETS Act of 2013” if passed, would authorize the transfer of federal surplus property to a state agency for distribution, through donation, within the state, for purposes of education or public health for organizations whose membership comprises substantially veterans, and whose representatives are recognized by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) in the preparation, presentation, and prosecution of claims under laws administered by the Secretary.
  • The Financial Competitive Act (HR 1341): requiring a study of differences in derivative markets in the U.S. and overseas.   I call this one the “Pass the Buck” law, in that it would
    • Direct the Financial Stability Oversight Council to study and report to Congress on the likely effects that differences between the United States and other jurisdictions in implementing the derivatives credit valuation adjustment capital requirement would have on: (1) U.S. financial institutions that conduct derivatives transactions and participate in derivatives markets, (2) end users of derivatives, and (3) international derivatives markets.
    • Require the study to recommend steps Congress and the constituent agencies of the Council should take to: (1) minimize any expected negative effects on U.S. financial institutions, derivatives markets, and end users; and (2) encourage greater international consistency in implementation of internationally agreed capital, liquidity, and other prudential standards.
  • The Audit Integrity and Job Protection (HR 1564): easing regulations that require public companies to rotate their external auditors. This bill would:
    • Authorizes the Secretary of the Interior, through the National Park Service (NPS), to make improvements to a support facility, including a visitor center, for a National Historic Site administered by the NPS if such project: (1) is conducted within the agency’s existing budget, (2) is subject to a 50% non-federal cost sharing requirement, and (3) is conducted for a unit of the NPS which has the authority to establish a support facility outside the park’s boundary.
    • Allows the NPS to operate and use all or part of a support facility, including a visitor center, for such a Site: (1) to carry out the duties associated with the administration and support of such Site, and (2) only in situations where there is an agreement between the Secretary and the commissioners of the county or parish in which the facility is located.

Related articles

Discharge Petition on the Student Loan Relief Act

On June 13, 2013, Rep. Joe Courtney [D-CT-2] filed a discharge petition in the House that would force a vote on the Student Loan Relief Act of 2013 (HR 1595). The Student Loan Relief Act would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to extend the reduced interest rate for Federal Direct Stafford Loans.

In the House, if a majority of Members (218 or more) sign on to “discharge” a bill from committee, it will be brought to the House Floor for a vote without a report from a Committee — without cooperation of the leadership. (Learn more.)

This is only the second discharge petition to be filed in this Congress. It is viewable on the House Clerk’s website.

Weigh in on this issue at popvox, where you can send a note to your House representative asking him/her to sign onto the discharge petition for HR1595:  https://www.popvox.com/bills/us/113/x126

Banking on Education

On July 1st, student loan rates are set to double, which spells dire consequences for our nation’s future. But it’s not just students, or even young adults who suffer from this debt crisis, but the economy as a whole! Find out how this impacts everyone and what you can do:

Click to Enlarge Image

Democracy for America Infographic

Banking on Education infographic via Democracy for America

Crushing College Dreams

On the very day that student loan debt reached the $1-trillion mark, Senate Republicans blocked a vote to extend the 3.4-percent interest rate on student loans for another year.

By Marc Morial

Marc Morial

As graduation season swings into high gear, a new economic crisis confronts thousands of this year’s high school and college grads — crushing college student loan debt.

America’s student loan debt recently reached the $1-trillion mark. That’s more than our total credit card and other consumer debt.

Ninety-four percent of the students who get a college degree take out these loans, up from 45 percent in 1993, according to The New York Times. The average college grad is saddled with more than $20,000 in debt by the time she dons her cap and gown. This is a tremendous burden for young graduates, many of whom are having trouble landing that first job.

Indentured Student (DonkeyHotey/Flickr)
Indentured Student (DonkeyHotey/Flickr)

Faced with the prospect of even more debt, many delay plans to attend graduate school. And for those lucky enough to find work, high monthly student loan bills may mean working two jobs or moving back in with mom and dad. While everyone agrees that a college education is the pathway to greater success in America, student loan debt is leaving too many graduates stalled at the starting gate.

"Higher education can’t be a luxury," says President Barack Obama. "It is an economic imperative that every family should be able to afford."

Recognizing the relationship between education and economic growth, Obama has made boosting America’s lagging college graduation rates one of his top priorities. It’s no secret that rising tuition costs are a major cause of stagnant or declining graduation rates, especially in communities of color. Currently, Obama is urging Congress to renew a 2007 bill that lowered the federal student loan interest rate from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent. If Congress fails to act, the current rate will double by July 1, increasing the average student debt burden by $1,000 over the life of the loan.

The irony of this debate is that both sides in Congress support an extension of the 3.4-percent rate. But like earlier fights over raising the debt ceiling and extending the payroll tax cut, lawmakers are arguing over how to pay for it. Senate Democrats would cover the $6-billion cost of the bill by closing some tax loopholes on high earners. Republicans continue to balk at any perceived tax hikes on the richest Americans and have made a counter-proposal to cut funding for a preventive health initiative that is part of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

On the very day that student loan debt reached the $1-trillion mark, Senate Republicans blocked a vote to extend the 3.4-percent interest rate on student loans for another year. It reminded me of an old African proverb: "When elephants fight, the grass suffers." Thousands of low-income students and their families are suffering while the two sides in Congress engage in ideological warfare.

College graduation is as important to our national security as a strong military. But when it comes to funding, education seems to always take a back seat to war. How much would graduation rates for African Americans and Latinos rise if they did not have to overcome the added economic barrier of high student loan debt?


Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League and the former mayor of New Orleans. www.nul.org  Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)