Author Mark Slouka argues U.S. education system an ‘instrument of production’

Making a stirring argument for the deep value of a humanities education, Professor Mark Slouka has provoked debate with an extended Harper's Magazine essay that critiques the widespread focus on education's economic benefits to students.

An education in the humanities should help students form values and understand what it means to be human, Slouka writes in "Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School." But Slouka believes this conception of the humanities is "losing" because of a national obsession with vocational education, in which academic fields are judged by their tangible contribution to the economy.

The heart of Slouka's argument is familiar - that the study of literature, history and other subjects in the humanities is essential to shaping an independent-minded, compassionate citizenry. But Slouka, Professor in English Language & Literature, says this civic argument has been drowned out.

"Education in America today is almost exclusively about the GDP," writes Slouka, a novelist who has directed Chicago's creative writing program since 2005. "Management has decided that the new business plan has no room for frivolity."

Slouka describes the American education system as becoming an adjunct of business, an "instrument of production." This conversion is so complete that even the case for the arts and humanities can only be made in the idiom of business, he says.

In an article by The New York Times editorialist Brent Staples, we learn that the American education system is failing "to produce the fluent writers required by the new economy." No doubt it is, but the sin of omission here is both telling and representative. Might there be another reason for seeking to develop fluent writers? Could clear writing have some relation to clear thinking and thereby have, perhaps, some political efficacy?

The "Crisis in American Education" is rarely framed as a question of civic identity - though it should be, Slouka argues. "From the local PTA meeting to the latest Presidential Commission on Education, the only subject under discussion, the only real criterion for investment…is jobs."

Slouka also argues that the obsession with education's economic returns has led to an "altogether unhealthy" focus on math and science as the preeminent subjects that can fuel national prosperity. "I see no contradiction between my respect for science," he writes, "and my humanist's discomfort with its ever-burgeoning role in American culture."

Slouka argues that the business-minded emphasis on math and science at the expense of the humanities has a steep cost.

I believe that what rules us is less the material world of goods and services than the immaterial one of whims, assumptions, delusions, and lies; that only by studying this world can we hope to shape how it shapes us; that only by attempting to understand what used to be called, in a less embarrassed age, 'the human condition' can we hope to make our condition more human, not less.

Slouka writes that those who study the humanities bear some responsibility for the marginalization of their fields. The way to address that, he says, is not to stress the practical or economic benefits of a humanities education, but to champion the vital role the humanities play in forming the foundation of a democratic society.

…The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be…. They are thus, inescapably, political. Why? Because they complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pieties. Because they grow uncertainty. Because they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redraw the borders of tolerance. Because out of all this work of self-building might emerge an individual capable of humility in the face of complexity; an individual formed through questioning and therefore unlikely to cede that right; an individual resistant to coercion, to manipulation and demagoguery in all their forms. The humanities, in short, are a superb delivery mechanism for what we might call democratic values. There is no better that I am aware of.  This, I would submit, is value-and cheap at the price.

Slouka's piece has provoked strong responses from bloggers. Some have fiercely disagreed with Slouka's message, but many others praised its original approach. One wrote that Slouka's piece 'highlights something I've long suspected but have been unable to articulate: that our education system is one engineered to serve business interests at the expense of civic interests."