The New Physiocrats, or, Is There Value in the Humanities?

(Bumped to this post of its own from the ending to my last post on returns to non-STEM college majors, because I think is worth thinking about separately.)

In general, I agree entirely with the many commentators who have argued that the United States needs to produce more STEM graduates.  But I also take note of the many people who have written to me to argue that the only truly employable STEM fields at the moment are engineering and computer science, and only certain disciplines within those.  (I.e., I take the point made by many commenters that STEM graduates are not doing all that well in this economy either – when we say STEM = employment, so commenters point out, we don’t mean scientists or mathematicians as such, we mean particular fields of engineering and computer science.  I can’t vouch for that but do accept it.)

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the United States could easily produce an excess of engineers — yes, even engineers.  The labor market of a complicated, division-of-labor society means many, many specializations, and most of them are not STEM.  We need lawyers, human resources staff, janitors, communications specialists, and many things that too-reductionist a view might lead one to believe are purely frivolous intermediary occupations.  Maybe they are parasitical, and maybe they will get squeezed out of existence over time.  But there is a sometimes incorrect tendency these days to believe that since innovation is the heart of all increases in productivity and hence in long run growth and wealth, STEM must be responsible for it and that because STEM is the root of innovation, only STEM jobs are truly value added.  I exaggerate for effect, but you see the point.

That’s a little bit like the error of the ancient Physiocrats, who believed that agricultural work was uniquely special because it was the root source of all wealth, since everyone had to eat.  (I simplify.)  But in a complex, specialized, highly intermediated economy, that’s not how it works.  Of course everyone needs to eat — but if we want to have things available to nearly everyone, consumption more than just eating, we have to accept a highly specialized economy with many diverse intermediaries — not all of whose functions will seem obvious to those assuming that only STEM innovators count.

Added: Several of the commenters in my last several posts on higher education have essentially argued that the liberal arts and traditional non-STEM humanities disciplines do not add value in today’s world and should be seen as (expensive) consumption choices or at best civic education for citizenship in the Republic; I paraphrase.  Another commenter from the last thread goes still further:

If I need a new knowledge base to keep myself employed, it’s only a deep Google and Wikipedia search away, plus online courses. But it’s asymmetric: a STEM can pick up a traditionally liberal arts skill quickly, but the non-STEM cannot nearly as fast (!) acquire an engineering or science knowledge base deep enough to be useful.

I don’t think I would agree with important parts of those assertions.  However, I will wait until I have more time to post on the value of the humanities – and as being far more than mere personal fulfillment or education-as-consumption, but a means of gaining genuine cognitive skills not easily available otherwise.  Meanwhile … open for reasoned debate:

This House Agrees That the Humanities Do Not Add Productive Value to Society and, Moreover, That STEM Graduates Are Better Able to Acquire Traditional Liberal Arts Skills Quickly Should They Ever Need Them.  Or Not.

I invite polite discussion on this issue (Civile Discourses, as Adam Smith might put it, being one of the Skills of the traditional Humanities, after all).  Please be polite, no rants and no craziness.  I will post my own views on the value of the humanities another day; I invite your views. (Also, while I’m thinking of it, if you refer to your own life experience in your comment, please give some idea what years you refer to, as economic conditions are not static.)