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The measurable value of a humanities education

October 18, 2010

Cedar Riener discusses the importance of humanities and arts in higher education. His post is in response to a recent Stanley Fish column on a crisis in the humanities. I’m glad Cedar wrote this post, because when I read Fish’s piece, after I got through the part where he dismisses all of the usual arguments for the humanities, I reread it twice and couldn’t find him presenting any good arguments in favor.

Cedar reviews recent evidence showing benefits of bilingualism and study abroad (making the case for departments of French, Russian, etc.). But importantly, he also discusses the difficulty of measuring outcomes:

Finally, I think a take-home message we should all get from the science of why there is value in the humanities (and the liberal arts in general) is that we should be humble in our drive to tie education to specific and direct goals.  This approach is short-sighted, not just because bilingualism improves creativity and prevents cognitive aging, but because most of the effects of any sort of education are very very hard to measure.  We psychologists can assail education research for not providing clear answers on anything, but at some point we have to conclude that the kind of clear answers we want just don’t exist.

Outcome-oriented policies are only as good as somebody’s ability to list, define, and measure outcomes. A lot of the criticisms of standardized testing center around this issue. As a scientist who does a fair amount of psychometrics in my line of work, I’m pretty optimistic about our ability to construct assessments if we have a good and comprehensive definition of what we want to measure. But the having-a-good-and-comprehensive-definition part is hellaciously hard when it comes to things like the effects of education. If universities keep shifting to “accountability” policies before we can solve this problem, we are in for a rough time.

3 Comments
  1. October 18, 2010 9:29 am

    Hey thanks Sanjay. I’ll add agreement that the having a good comprehensive definition is too often one that we skip, and also a stage when we could argue for complexity in the outcome. By the time we get to assessment and accountability, the argument for complex outcomes seems self-serving (this is too complex to measure). I agree with you that there are reasons to be optimistic about the possibility of measuring hard-to-measure things (like, ummm, anything in social psych), but I think we have got to come out and say we value them at the beginning. For example, I am in favor of explicitly setting “enjoyment of reading,” and “curiosity” as outcomes of elementary education. They are of course hard to measure, but not impossible, and with the millions of dollars we are currently throwing, why not give it a try?
    Anyways, thanks again for the shout-out. Now that I am on the assessment committee here, I hope that I can help support the right parts of defining and assessing before the accountability train comes roaring through.

  2. Sanjay Srivastava permalink
    October 18, 2010 1:25 pm

    I just saw an interesting take from Dean Dad (including some hilarious digs at Fish). He basically supports the traditional view of the value of humanities — in line with things like “enjoyment of reading” and “curiosity” (at the college level). Viewing the SUNY-Albany decision as an administrator, he speculates that the alternative to cutting these departments would have been to water them down — hire a bunch of adjuncts and forego serious scholarship. Instead, SUNY-A might be doing this to concentrate their resources in the departments that remain.

  3. October 19, 2010 9:34 am

    Yeah, I have a sneaking suspicion that higher ed administrators are not all the minor demons we make them to be. Although the SUNY-Albany guy seemed like he should have at least made the meeting seem like one where input was possible. In times like these, I am actually for real statements of the dire situation, rather than further and further watering down to stay under the radar. Maybe we can then have an actual conversation about the value of the liberal arts (and of higher education rather than vocational training). Hopefully Stanley Fish won’t be moderating it.

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