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July 11, 2013 at 6:40 AM

Economics is the wrong argument for studying the humanities

Julie Ziegler and Michael Zimmerman argue in Thursday’s op-ed that study in the humanities –languages, literature, philosophy, and the arts—should be supported because they offer the country that stresses them “a clear competitive advantage” in the world — “a clear economic return.”

I’m for the humanities—I make my living as a writer—but “clear economic return” overstates the case. Does the sales manager for a fish-processing company have an economic need to know Shakespeare? Does a software engineer have an economic need to be familiar with cubism and abstract expressionism? Does an aerospace tech have an economic need to know the difference between the ontological argument and the argument from design?

Probably not.

Is it good that they know these things? Sure. They’re better persons for it, more well-rounded, more interesting. But will they make more money? Once in a while, maybe. Most times, no.

America is one of the richest countries in the world. Is this because Americans have a knowledge of history, philosophy, literature and the arts superior to that of foreigners?


Let’s take on Ziegler and Zimmerman’s argument about Japan and America.

“Twenty-five years ago,” they write, “many Americans believed the Japanese were poised to economically dominate the world. They were educating engineers more efficiently and exporting superior and cheaper products. But today, with the tech sector more important than ever, it is American companies, including many located in Washington, that drive innovation and dominate markets.”

Why the U.S. superiority? Because, the authors say, Americans have been “well-served by previous investments in the humanities” and have more “creativity and vision.”

I remember when Americans had an exaggerated fear and wonder of Japan. But that was when a real estate and stock-market bubble made Japan look bigger than it was. It’s true that much of America’s economic success has been because of our celebration of creativity, but it also has to do with our attraction of immigrants, our tolerance of entrepreneurial failure, our open competition and our individualism. There are connections here to philosophy and literature, but it exaggerates those connections to say we rebounded from Japan’s challenge because of “previous investments in the humanities.”

This is not the first time I’ve seen this argument. It’s the usual economic argument for a non-economic activity. Why do people turn everything into dollars and cents? Because they think money and jobs are what people care about. But people care about lots of things, and for some of those things a purely economic argument won’t wash. That’s so even for some of the “hard” sciences. Take astronomy. What economic value is there in discovering Earthlike planets hundreds of light-years away? I can think of none—but it’s enlightening, and I’m glad somebody’s doing it.

Let’s leave economic arguments to economic matters, and defend other human activities on their own terms.



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