The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Destruction of the Humanities & Social Sciences and Societal Mis-allocation of Resources

Since 2008 we’ve seen the rise of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and the decline of the humanities and social sciences. Students want to study engineering, programming, science and so on because that’s where the good jobs are, student debt levels are obscene and there has been a social movement towards the glorification of the sciences.

All the good, right? Science and engineering have given us TVs, running water, power and miniature pocket computers which can make phone calls and spy on us 24/7.

But the world has some problems: climate change and ecological collapse and war and plague and so on.

The solution to these problems includes technology and science, to be sure. But generally speaking we aren’t even using the tech we have to solve our problems. Air filtration in every classroom and public building would cut Covid massively, and it’s cheap, and we aren’t doing it. We have known about climate change for ages, and done essentially nothing, even though we have the ability to. Instead, we doubled-down on fracking and finding more oil and gas and we built massive numbers of private jets, whose emission add significantly to the problem.

We’re not using the tech we have to solve our problems, and in many cases we’re using it to make the problem worse.

In other words, are problems aren’t primarily technological: in fact it is our disuse and misuse of technology which is causing many of our worst problems. It’s a sorceror’s apprentice situation, we have power without the wisdom and control necessary to use it safely.

Our problems are social. That means that if academia can help, the help will have to come from the social sciences (not including economics) and from the humanities, which are the disciplines which deal with humanity in all our glorious disastrousness.

Massively emphasizing STEM, except perhaps biological and environmental related sciences, is putting the pedal to the metal until we can sort our social issues which make us use our technology in ways that are vastly self-destructive.

If we want to stop the onrushing disasters, currently epitomized by rivers drying up in Europe and China, that means fixing why we’re doing the wrong things, not the right ones. Technology and science are tools, they tell us how to do things; they can provide some guidance on what to do, but they don’t determine what we do. As climate scientists are well aware, guidance doesn’t work in society isn’t willing to follow it.

Increasing STEM while doing the wrong things with it isn’t a solution, it’s a problem. Perhaps the humanities and social sciences aren’t the solution, but they at least attempt to deal with it, with the fact that we keep doing the wrong things even when we know the right things and know how to do them.



Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – August 28, 2022


Sweden’s Relative Performance In Covid


  1. Joan

    I appreciate this post on the humanities. As I mentioned on the open thread, my experience of completing a humanities degree was that it not only pursued knowledge but it also at least attempted wisdom. We read the books outside of class, and in class the professor challenged us to think about them critically. In more than one course the instructor picked students and pitted them against each other for a debate, often forcing us to defend a side we didn’t personally believe in. In many courses we would do such exercises for writing homework. I can name several instances in which my beliefs were challenged and I ended up adjusting my views.

  2. anon

    I majored in the humanities and see the importance of the humanities. Still, they more often lead to dead-end, low-paying jobs and mountains of student loan debt unless someone uses that degree to become a tenured professor or get a professional degree in law or business.

    The only solution to this problem is forgiving all student loan debt and making public universities tuition-free. Until that happens, we can’t blame students for being pragmatic and choosing careers that will help them make a dent in their student loan repayment sometime before they die.

  3. NR

    Well said, Ian. Although while I agree that humanities and social sciences should be taught in college, they should also be emphasized more in K-12 education. That’s where we could probably see the most benefit.

  4. Willy

    The smart people to into STEM. But the really smart people to into business and finance. The smartest people go into politics and religious prophesy.

    As for the latter, I can remember a time when all the respectable ministers were expected to have a significant amount of advanced divinity or theology education from a credible seminary. Today, an old circus tent with a MAGA blessing might do. Plus a lot of fire and brimstone aimed at the LGBTQ, leftist, and anti-assault weaponry communities.

    I suspect that for academia to be revised we’d need to revise our whole economic-social-cultural system. Make philosophy affordable again. Not to mention respectable. And further not to mention that academia would need to be far more publicly funded, like back in olden times.

  5. Harry Haller

    The cheesy “new atheist” and STEMlord Sam Harris embodies the science as panacea mentality. He wrote a shockingly bad book in 2010 called The Moral Landscape in which he not only argues that science can determine human values, provide answers about the difference between right and wrong and so forth, he actually claims that neuroscience can help humans achieve a universal morality. The idea that brain scans can reveal deep truths about what it means to be human is of course preposterous nonsense.

    But it’s a nonsense that is implicitly, if not explicitly, accepted in a technocratic society that has choked off and starved the social sciences and humanities (or turned them into “cultural studies”), while glorifying technology and “science” as the only tools we need to build and maintain an advanced civilization.

    Giving every kid a laptop or an iPad and pushing them into STEM is not a solution, it’s part of the problem. Scanning pages of text on a screen and quickly locating and categorizing relevant information is a very useful skill but it’s not synonymous with reading. Reading a complex text, and making sense of what one is reading, is a much slower and more involved process and requires the reader to be fully present. At the same time as kids are being pushed into STEM, their literacy skills are atrophying. I’ve read and heard countless high school and post-secondary instructors lamenting the atrocious reading and writing skills of their students.

    In a technocratic culture careful reading and taking time to reflect is slow and “inefficient”. Literacy, as understood by people who came of age before the 2000s, is already becoming a niche skill even in more technical fields. I heard on the news that a British Columbia technical school is going to be offering audio versions of its plumbing textbooks because so many students have trouble with reading. It’s telling that Steve Jobs wouldn’t let his kid use an iPad and that members the Silicon Valley tech overlord class limit how much time their kids can spend using the technology they push onto the rest of us.

    If our civilization is to stand a chance at surviving what’s coming at us the social sciences and humanities must absolutely be revitalized. And that requires highly literate people whose reading and thinking skills aren’t limited to information gathering and solving technical problems. Before you can think, you need to learn how to think. That’s what a post-secondary education offered before it became neoliberalized and turned into an expensive job training program. Philosophy, literature, history…are all important – not only when it comes to understanding the human condition but also as tools of intellectual self-defence against rulers and leaders, or the office psychopath for that matter, who seek to manipulate and confuse in order to dominate and control.

    Science is great, and very useful, but it’s not a panacea. It doesn’t have all the answers. This should be obvious. Shoehorning every aspect of life and existence into a STEM frame is a trend that can’t end soon enough.

  6. Dan Lynch

    Hmmm. Some googling seems to confirm that, yes, there was a decline in liberal arts majors after the 2008 financial crisis, nonetheless, we still have more liberal arts majors now than in the 1950’s. So I’m not seeing a major trend or crisis?

    Working class people go to college to get a job. It’s just that simple. Liberal arts jobs are quite limited, and low quality. At the moment teaching jobs seem available, but that hasn’t always been the case, and the current teaching environment in the U.S. is absolutely toxic. Nor is the U.S. job market wonderful for STEM majors. Despite all the hoopla about STEM, the truth is that the U.S. has sent most of its STEM jobs overseas.

    As Michael Hudson has written about extensively, the U.S. economy has shifted to services and to the FIRE sector. That’s where the jobs are. Not liberal arts. Not STEM, even.

    It’s true that the West has “social issues,” but has nothing to do with college majors and everything to do with capitalism and imperialism.

    Disclaimer: I have both a liberal arts degree and a STEM degree. I value them both, but they are a small part of my learning experiences.

  7. StewartM

    I have degrees in both a STEM field and in history (European), and I’ll add to the chorus of appreciation for your perspective, Ian.

    Two other things:

    a) What NR said. Moreover, we should be teaching some form of world history (and not the lame variety) as a required course, not just US history. I believe that studying US history in isolation leads people down dangerous paths. Like, equating “liberty” with small government, when if you know European history, you learn that “liberty” really meant “liberty for the local nobles to mis-treat commoners as they pleased” and that (although there were plenty of bad kings) that there were also good kings who tried to rein in these abuses by the nobility . Abraham Lincoln summed this up well when he said:

    “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty. Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of liberty.”

    b) I also think the very worst thing that has happened to education is vocational education. Driving high school kids choose their profession even before they step into a college class is just nuts. Kids should have the ability and freedom to sample classes in subjects before choosing a major.

    Moreover, employers should be giving people the proper specific vocational training; not so much schools. It is really quite impossible for schools to properly prepare even STEM majors for a job, but our MBA graduate managers (who aren’t technically trained so they don’t know) now believe they can hire “instant experts” right out of school. As a result, a lot of the good vocational training courses that used to be offered to people who *were working* in the field have dried up due to lack of corporate funding. Losing these courses is a blow to developing our human infrastructure.

  8. Joe

    My uncle started and managed a business in which he designed built and installed automated brewing systems . They were installed all over the world. He needed employees that could think across a wide spectrum of social, engineering and technical areas.
    He much preferred to hire young people who did poorly in school and left as soon as they could.

  9. Tallifer

    Contrarywise, I firmly believe that vocational education is the best preparation for adulthood, and that it provides a nation with a trained, diligent, practical and useful workforce. Ever wonder why plumbers and electricians charge so much? Supply and demand. The emergencies created by anthropomorphic climate change will also probably force most of us to wish we had some practical training. (Of course, I speak with the wistful idealism of an overly educated historian who wishes he could fix even a toaster.)

  10. bruce wilder

    I have run across various theses that attribute “prime mover” social causality to education. I am sympathetic to a large degree. I have long had an interest in the British civil wars of the 17th century, which gave early expression to a range of modern ideologies, before settling into the Tory-Whig dichotomy that persisted thru to the early 20th century. Arguably, it was a preface to the Enlightenment.

    The British civil wars owed something to the rise of general literacy under the Tudors as well as a remarkable rise in higher education. If attendance at the Inns of Court (effectively a kind of law school) is included, the peak percentage of English with higher education in the 17th century would not be exceeded again until the red brick universities of the late 19th took hold.

    If education had a role in incubating ideas, movements and events, it was certainly not a linear progression percolating thru society. Many saw the English edition of the civil wars as the product of the disputatiousness and credulity of the poorly educated. Advanced education was in theology and law; science was still being invented and secular philosophy was to be a product of the civil wars, emerging during and after.

    I look about the 21st century at the university educated and I see a significant class of people politely offering their pronouns and generating a political rhetoric as devoid of meaning as any crackpot theology of the 17th. The most remarkable thing about them is not their facility for critical thinking, but rather their immunity to it.

    My degrees have all been in economics, a social science desperately needed to devise a response to climate change and the exhaustion of fossil fuel resources (including especially the capacity to assimilate the additions to the carbon cycle), but the actually existing mainstream economics is a mind-numbing theology of imagined but non-existent automatic “market” economies. I have tried to talk people out of it and most cannot get far enough to see the importance of being able to discuss actual economic systems and (political) mechanisms. A surprising number of educated people subscribe to Marxism, a critique of a classical economics that was dead before Marx himself. Maybe China is doing better and I don’t know because I cannot read Chinese, but I doubt it very much.

  11. Willy

    It’s a shame that economics isn’t as much a beneficial science as psychology is. That is, not much but better than nothing. It seems that modern economics is mostly about how elites can profit from herd movements which economists inspire.

    You’d think that economics should just be ingredients in some big recipe, with a little “to keep your souffle from falling don’t slam the oven door” thrown in. Maybe the home schooling craze will inspire a kid who realizes that mom’s Prager U is childish crap, and then he/she/they proceeds to come up with a Special Theory of Economic Relativity, or something, which the real economists can hobnob about.

  12. anon y'mouse

    sociologists know that the real purpose of university education is to reproduce and legitimate the prevailing order and structure of society.

    as it was, as it ever shall be except perhaps that brief interim afforded by the GI Bill and needing to do something with hundreds of thousands of out of work former soldiers, trained to kill and fresh from learning how to carry on one of the largest organized actions in human history.

    in the days of the Uni as a “unifier” of the elites, it provided to them a common (high) culture, history (powerful men named Thus and So did X and Y)and the ability to understand and thus rule over the same in their time. that form of university was never intended to develop the minds of commoners.

    then along came WWII and a more technologically and managerially complicated society. it was opened up to teach those who were “worthy” from the lower orders to be allowed to do these things to keep that society properly ordered.

    when i went (10+years ago, as a very late adult student) it was about credentialing for professional or semi-professional employement and legitimating the idea of “experts” so that everyone understood that those were the people who were to be consulted and listened to. they made big yarn about telling everyone they were teaching “critical thinking” but then resented every moment that any student actually attempted that in class, except for the philosophy classes.

    ECON 101/102 is inculcating the religion of economist priests into everyone who attends University and that legitimates their expertise and dumbs down enough of their “Market God” concepts for the rest of the dummies to somewhat understand and thus agree with economistic thinking. that is all. the moment i questioned “where does the money come from?” it all fell apart for me and I personally feel it would be better to train people in basic accountancy than that catechism. the people who take ECON101/102 are in no way equipped to critique the proclamations of the Fed Reserve, nor even Obama’s “the government is like a household” nonsense.

    the human resources needed by the system of the Owners is what is always being replicated there, and it always will be so. until we expand the ownership to the whole of the society (a genuine ownership with actual rights to determine beyond merely casting ballots into the ether), it will remain that way and even then, the only things that most people’s parents are going to pay the cost for will be things that provide their kid social standing and income. ditto if “society” as a whole is paying the bill.

    “society” or the status quo, or the Establishment, don’t like backtalk either so don’t go getting those critical thinking skills in philosophy. “they” are never going to reward that. better you learn your catechism and how to count your beans properly.

  13. Trinity

    “until we expand the ownership to the whole of the society”


    But we also need (and this is apparent now) to understand complex systems, how everything is related to everything else. Advanced mathematics aren’t needed, as the Native Americans understood it without a written language. The evidence to support this continues to grow. They also shared not just knowledge but wisdom, to ensure future generations didn’t have to learn everything the hard way. And walked their talk.

    It also means understanding if you do x, there are consequences. There are consequences for everything we do, although sometimes it’s small scale/local only. Sometimes the consequences are positive, but not lately.

    Great article, Ian. Great comments, too. I’m also a hybrid, with a stem degree, followed by a social science degree, and then combined them back into a hybrid social-physical science degree. Unfortunately I had an undergrad philosophy professor who required only “read and regurgitate”. I remember almost nothing, except he was always checking out my legs. smh

  14. bruce wilder

    a baker would understand a souffle as something you do when you know how, not as something that just happens magically when you bring together the right ingredients and incentives without any loud noises

  15. Willy

    bruce, I’ve never been able to get a solid answer from you about an economic direction. Dems bad media bad Trump and his people misunderstood.

    anon y’mouse and Trinity, I like the idea of expanding the ownership to the whole of a society because I’ve seen that work quite well in smaller scale organizations, far better than neoliberal dictatorships I’d also been a part of.

  16. different clue

    When I was a college student decades ago, there was something called “distribution”, which meant that every Undergrad Level student had to take enough various humanities courses as to have some measure of grounding in humanistic thought. That was Academe’s hope, even if many vo-tech professional minded students resented having to take them.

    Nowadays, I don’t know if “distribution” requirements even exist in Big College anymore.

  17. anon y'mouse

    different clue: we had to take the Capstone. which was a set of classes focusing on certain areas of thought (there were a bunch of different capstones you could take that would supposedly “even out” your major, and they were offered based on that major)but allowed choice within even that set.

    i personally chose to take the philosophy courses within the Capstone (even more specifically, all of my capstone classes were about epistemology with some associated social science courses in Cognition, Learning, Motivation, etc) as an intention to get a minor in that subject, although minors are not official. i would count my unofficial philosophy minor to be much more important than the entire rest of my university education. those were some of the only courses that i felt i was learning while attending, and not simply memorizing for test-taking regurgitation after which more than half would be forgotten (instructors know this–retention of the 10 pounds in the 5 pound sack is estimated to be 1.5 to 2 pounds of retained knowledge. almost like the whole thing is set up to make you not really learn!).

    after all, how much more “general education” will there be? the first two years of college are essentially general ed (including the maligned ECON101/102 series) and prerequisites for the higher class series. if you want to realign Uni to be almost all general ed, well…..perhaps we should start revamping high school instead. it’s already taking many people 5 years to graduate the 4 typical university years as it is. will it stretch to 6?

    what really needs be done is end credentialism in employment, reconstitute trade schools for technical and paraprofessional (remember secretarial colleges?), and then offer the freedom to attend University for general improvement (yes, like a finishing school to be a functioning human in our society) to all who will fulfill the course objectives. something like an Open University, or whatever it is they had for a brief period in UK.

    even then, many people will not go because they will be too busy working full time or two or however many part time jobs in order to simply pay their living expenses. having the time to go to school was an extreme luxury afforded to me by a very indulgent husband, even with Pell grants and student loans covering the expense.

    then they can reorient what the “general education” will be away from prepping you for fake paraprofessional training into the humanities, philosophy, ecological science and civics–subjects pertaining to the proper use of the adult mind in a complicated interlinked world society. this would be my (lame)imaginary remaking of the old elite “university” finishing school to that of the Grand Ownership Society.

    let the professions have their separate training schools, as nurses still do today. of course, that would mean the University gets even more poor, because the remunerative aspects would mostly be taken elsewhere. but that’s ok—it’s time to stop Unis from becoming Club Med anyway (the only thing that improved on campus my entire time there was the new gym building, complete with rock climbing walls, and they still held the actual gym classes in the old one that was falling apart).

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