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Malik ’18: The gatekeepers of knowledge

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, March 8, 2016

As an ardent defender of the humanities who believes they should be valued and encouraged as fields of study, I am disturbed by a news article published recently in the New York Times. The piece, “A Rising Call to Promote STEM Funding and Cut Liberal Arts Education,” describes a growing trend in which state governments are funding science, technology, engineering and math programs offered by public institutions of higher education instead of humanities programs. The article explains that “high-demand” degrees in STEM fields often get preference for government funding and mentions that “several Republicans have portrayed a liberal arts education as an expendable, sometimes frivolous luxury that taxpayers should not be expected to pay for.”

State governments and Republican politicians are not the only ones calling for plans that devalue the humanities. The piece points out, “The Obama administration, for example, proposed, much to the horror of many in academia, rating the country’s 7,000 colleges and universities not only on measures like completion rates and student loan debt, but also on earnings after graduation.” This means that a school’s funding would be linked to how much money graduates earn, giving the school an incentive to promote STEM fields, which are more likely to provide degrees that lead directly to high-paying jobs.

The strong role that politicians play in determining the knowledge of the voting populace is disturbing. In order for a democracy to function well, for the people to elect politicians whom they think will represent their best interests and for voters to push for legislation that will lead to important changes, the populace has to be informed. They will not be fully informed if they are pushed to study only STEM fields.

Yes, knowledge of STEM allows someone to be informed about specific government policies. For example, strong understanding of environmental science allows one to understand which laws would be the most effective in slowing down climate change. But the humanities are also important. Someone who understands philosophy could feel confident about the immorality of a law that allows capital punishment. A person who reads literature from around the world would be exposed to different ideas about how people should behave and what society should be like, which can guide this person’s support of certain policies. If the state and federal government insist on promoting  STEM programs, they are promoting gaps in their constituents’ knowledge. STEM programs that gain funding will be at the vanguard of their fields and will allow students to learn about the most recent breakthroughs and discoveries. Humanities programs that do not receive funding from the government might become stagnant, discouraging students from participating.

Judging schools based on their graduates’ earnings is also faulty. Many willingly pursue humanities fields because of deep passions and strong inclinations, though they know that they may not receive the same financial benefits as others who pursue fields more closely linked to higher-paying jobs. Schools shouldn’t feel the need to push these students away from their passions out of fear that they will lose funding, and schools should not be punished when students consider the consequences of their academic pursuits and make well-informed decisions about their futures.

Yes, I understand that politicians have an interest in making sure that college and university graduates are not burdened by student loans and can obtain jobs. But if the government can influence what schools teach, it can promote ideas and suppress information to help it keep its power and to preserve harmful structures in society. For example, if departments devoted to the study of languages, literatures and cultures from around the world lose funding and students, the voting population’s global perspective would erode, and many people might embrace a dangerous and insular view of U.S. exceptionalism. Such a viewpoint would allow voters in senate and presidential elections to support politicians with disastrous foreign policy platforms. Furthermore, concentrations such as ethnic studies and gender and sexuality studies are devoted to providing students with important perspectives that challenge social inequality and injustice. If these departments are diminished, there will be fewer people leaving college well-prepared to fight for a more just and equal country.

In this government that is meant to be “for the people,” leaders can impact the knowledge of the people to whom they are accountable. Though STEM involves important areas of knowledge, the humanities provide insights into morality, society, culture and justice that can challenge the status quo. Though politicians may not deliberately suppress the humanities to preserve their own power, their influence in this area is wrong. Schools should decide how they use their funding. Members of the government should not be the gatekeepers of knowledge. They should let the democracy of this country run as it should, with an informed populace.

Ameer Malik ’18 is concentrating in literary arts and can be reached at ameer_malik@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. Dom Greco says:

    Comprehensive and very thought-provoking article. Among the questions that came to mind during my reading of the article, and that I continue to think about as a result of my review of the article, are the following:

    1. Programs that the government funds–

    When government officials are called upon to make decisions with regard to the disbursement of monies provided by taxpayers, should the criteria used by those officials in making those government expenditure decisions be based upon either:

    (X) consideration of economics – credible objective and verifiable economic data indicating what would provide the society with the greatest economic return, such as are attributed to the funding of science, technology, engineering, and math programs or

    (Y) consideration of personal passions – the passions of the students and the voters for government expenditures to support other particular university programs for which in a head to head economic comparison they do not provide any comparable economic return to the society?

    If a government official states that he or she “wants to do the right thing”, but wants to know what criteria the official should use to determine what the “right thing” is, what should we tell the government official?

    Should we tell the government official that government decisions should be made primarily based upon “economics” or “passions”?

    2. Student loans –

    If credible objective and verifiable economic data shows that there are significantly more student loan repayment defaults for government loans, or in connection with government loan guarantees, given to students who study certain subjects, would it be prudent and consistent with a government official having a fiduciary duty to the government to place greater conditions, restrictions, etc. on loans to those students, which conditions and restrictions would have some reasonable relationship to the expected loan defaults?

    If the government officials should make student loans without regard to the prospect of their being repaid, then what criteria should be used by government officials in making other government decisions where the choice is between making the decisions based upon (X) citizen passion, or (Y) the results of rational economic analysis?

    3. Government providing descriptive data on educational outcomes –

    Is there something inherently wrong with the government providing the public with statistics on colleges and universities with respect to completion rates, student loan debt, and earnings after graduation, so that prospective students and their parents will have this additional information to consider and factor into their decision process?

    If there is something inherently wrong with the government providing such information, then what criteria should be used in distinguishing between when the government should provide credible information to the public and when not?

    Concluding comments

    I believe that answers to these questions, and justification for such answers, would be most helpful to further consideration of the excellent points that you have raised for consideration.

    I certainly do not believe that the government should have any role in determining what students should be permitted to study as long as the students are willing to pay the cost of such education.

    However, absent persuasive answers to the questions that I have raised above, the article has not persuaded me that the taxpayers, the government, should subsidize educational programs for which there is no independent objective evidence that the society would get a competitive investment rate of return on such investment.

    Of course, every individual should be permitted to study subjects and programs of their choice, regardless of the economic return of such investment, as long as such individuals are paying the costs themselves and not looking to the taxpayers to pay the cost for the fulfillment of their personal passions.

    If the government is going to spend money satisfying individual passions, without economic justification, then what criteria should be used to determine where should the line be drawn to distinguish between (X) when and to what extent the government should spend money satisfying “passions” and (Y) when and to what extent the taxpayer money should instead be spent based upon sound economic considerations?

    The answer would be most helpful to me, and I assume to other readers.

  2. ShadrachSmith says:

    We are talking $. SJWs want all the $. That is a bad thing.

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