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by Megan Massino •

The humanities were notably absent from President Obama’s remarks on higher-education in last night’s State of the Union Address. Reading the institutional death of the humanities into presidential addresses is old hat. Whether a bitter lament or a call-to-arms, the assumption that advocating for math and science necessarily denigrates the humanities is a tedious iteration of the “Two Cultures” debate, something I hope not to further sustain here. Instead I’ll amend my opening statement with a few questions: were the humanities conspicuously absent? Or were they allegorically central?

The humanities may indeed get short shrift in the address, but I’m not sure they play the role of poor, overlooked disciplines. Rather, through a string of slippery conflations, the university becomes a stand-in for the (missing) humanities. In the address, the university is oddly defined; innovative research and applied skills are cordoned off, the university emerging as a villain antithetical to jobs, whether job training or job creation through technical innovation. This strangely bereft university emerges as an allegory for the humanities, specifically, or liberal arts education more broadly. While praising community college training programs and advocating against cuts to university research labs, Obama nevertheless puts higher-ed “on notice.” I want to suggest that the humanities are sentenced in absentia, through a number of confusing and fascinating rhetorical translations:

1. Community minus college. Obama’s emphasis on community colleges throughout the speech conflates community colleges with job training. In his call to give community colleges more resources, the stated aim is for those colleges to “become community career centers–places that teach people skills that business are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing.” Targeted career-training adheres in a definition of an institution’s “community” service, while “college” comes to stand in for the aspects ignored in the speech: the transfer track to four year institutions, or the liberal arts curriculum present in two year programs. And in the translation from “community college” to “community career center” those aspects of “college” drop out.

2. University minus research. University-level research is also cordoned off from the university in another twist. The university research highlighted in the speech is aligned with technical innovation and job creation:
Today, the discoveries taking place in our federally financed labs and universities could lead to new treatments that kill cancer cells but leave healthy ones untouched.  New lightweight vests for cops and soldiers that can stop any bullet.  Don’t gut these investments in our budget.  Don’t let other countries win the race for the future.  Support the same kind of research and innovation that led to the computer chip and the Internet; to new American jobs and new American industries.
While research labs at universities have educational missions, the computer chip example leaves us with a research lab mostly indistinguishable from “federal labs.”
3. Higher-ed minus luxury. Despite this call to keep funding university labs, higher-ed is “put on notice” if it does not rein in tuition costs. The lost “college” aspect of community colleges reappears later in the speech alongside the university separated from its research:

So let me put colleges and universities on notice:  If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.  (Applause.)  Higher education can’t be a luxury -– it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.

On the heels of Vice President Joe Biden’s allegations that inflated professor salaries are to blame for high tuition rates, the figure of “higher-education” that emerges is a group of educators (rather than researchers or institutions) and specifically educators in disciplines understood as antithetical to, or at least irrelevant to, cultivating applied skills/career training. In other words, the liberal arts, or, more specifically, the humanities. On the one hand, the speech claims that higher education cannot be a luxury. On the other, the speech diligently divides technical skill and technical innovation from the university project, aligning the liberal arts aspect of higher-ed, I would argue, with elitism and “luxury.”

A few closing questions:

A. Is this emphasis on job training as education for the middle-class not an elitist move? I find it unsettling that so many in positions of authority who advocate students seek out applied skills come, primarily, out of liberal arts colleges.

B. If advocacy for math and science is not necessarily a denigration of the humanities, is the absence of the humanities in the speech necessarily a valorization of  math and science? And is it in terms that educators and practitioners in those disciplines would necessarily agree with? I don’t imagine that educators in the sciences nor those at community colleges much appreciate being so explicitly aligned with consumerism, nor their educational mission boiled down to market -driven forces.

C. Does a vulgar definition of the humanities stand behind the university, spectrally, in Obama’s speech? Or is that claim an example of humanistic paranoia?

D. Advocates for the humanities often fight-the-good-fight at moments like these by staking their claim on students’ cultural enrichment or by arguing that humanities disciplines do, like other disciplines, propagate marketable skills. I find the latter a stronger position, because the first is both a cliché and so universally accepted it is beyond argument (though it doesn’t seem to secure funding). Is there not a third option here, something absent from my discussion and from Obama’s speech, advocating for the role of the university in the larger community, for the humanities in the public?

[Megan Massino is–no surprise–an educator in the humanities at a research university. Specifically, she is a PhD candidate in the Literary Studies Program at UW-Madison, where she is attempting a dissertation on the crisis of visualization and re-conceptualizing of the material in early twentieth-century avant-garde literature, visual art, and physics.]