“The New Normal for Humanities: Death by a Thousand Cuts”

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Aaron, on the way from a meeting with a Japanese CEO of a shipping firm at the Port of Los Angeles, interviewing for a possible job next year.

“The New Normal for Humanities: Death by a Thousand Cuts”

By Teri Yamada, CSU Long Beach

 

We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.

—Chris Hedges    (Henry A. Giroux, “Beyond Savage Politics and Dystopian Nightmares)

Warning!  This is yet another sorrowful examination of the shortsighted privileging of STEM and the defunding of the Humanities now occurring across the United States.  It reflects Chris Hedges lament that our universities (certainly not all of them equally) are now in the business of destroying knowledge. This also appears to be the “unintended consequence” of the California State University system since 2011, echoing Governor Brown’s  and the federal government’s  ideology that STEM fields will make California and the U.S. more globally competitive.

Consequently, diverting funds from foreign languages, religious studies, philosophy, and ethnic studies programs, for example, just because these disciplines have never really drawn hundreds of majors each year is now rationalized by a new numbers game of student-customer demand plus class fill rates at my campus in the CSU.  It becomes death by a thousand cuts for the Humanities.   The administrative subtext, always subject to denial, is that Humanities’ disciplines are of low value in our stagnant economy.  Who needs another “worker” with a English, psychology, religious studies, or Chinese language degree?  Why spend money on classes with just 15-25 students in the language disciplines!  Or on departments with under 100 majors?  Or on MA programs in the Humanities?  Move students over to STEM where they at least have a chance for a stable, well-paying job after graduation!

Or do they?

What is the reality of the competitive global marketplace that our graduates now enter seeking these “better” jobs?  It is a world of increasing contingency and contract labor.   A world of no benefits, pensions, or job security.  A world where, beyond any STEM skill set, you must be entrepreneurial (think outside the box), proficient at professional networking, and aggressively self-promoting to land even a short-term contract.  It is a world where analytics will be used to measure your personality and past performance to assess whether you are a good-enough fit for your new, transitory “team” ( see Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over. Dutton, 2013).

IBM phrases it this way in its self-promotional report “Redesigning work creates a Smarter Workforce” (2013):

 The labor market inside each organization will need to change as the percentage of independent and contingent workers rise. This transformation can bring about the creation of a true labor force. This true labor force will be global, complete with a “common currency,” a “common language” and the free flow of information. People will earn a “talent passport” that expresses their true value based on their actual skill set, achievements and the continuous feedback of nearly everyone they interact with at work. The data on this “passport” will enable virtually every company and individual to rely on the accuracy of the information, and locate experts for projects and work at just the right time, creating greater efficiencies and higher engaged employees.

Or from the Harvard Business Review  (“The Rise of the New Contract Worker,” 9.7.12):

Contingent workers can add to an organization’s intellectual capacity and provide instant expertise as needed….Not only can organizations derive a cost savings from adjusting staff sizes up and down based on business requirements, but they are also able to control the wages paid for particular tasks by using contingent talent on a project basis.

Or Fox News:

The use of temps has extended into sectors that seldom used them in the past — professional services, for example, which include lawyers, doctors and information technology specialists….

Beyond economic uncertainty, Ethan Harris, global economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, thinks more lasting changes are taking root. “There’s been a generational shift toward a less committed relationship between the firm and the worker,” Harris says.

An Associated Press survey of 37 economists in May found that three-quarters thought the increased use of temps and contract workers represented a long-standing trend….”You have your just-in-time workforce,” Houseman says. “You only pay them when you need them.”

Take the experience of my former student Aaron as he navigates the global contingent-worker marketplace.  A 2011 graduate in Asian Studies at CSU Long Beach, language emphasis Japanese, he just signed a contract to teach English at a public elementary school in Saitama, Japan.  It took two years of effort to land this “one-year contract,” including a short trip to Japan to investigate the job market and improve contacts by establishing firmer relationships through face-to-face meetings, extensive online-research and networking, and a successful job interview in both English and Japanese via SKYPE.  It also entailed Aaron giving up his Longshoreman’s job at the Port of Los Angeles, a decision not made lightly.  But  unlike his father who is now in a permanent senior position as a Longshoreman at the Port, Aaron entered the workforce at a time when management was using technology to reduce union jobs while demanding more contingent workers.  He spent the last eight years, trying to obtain more work hours at the Port, hoping to move up the union hierarchy, showing up early mornings on non-school days to see if his number was picked, worried about finances while living with his dad.   So if Aaron cannot leverage this year of opportunity in Japan with his other skill sets—including expert knowledge of Japanese popular music culture—he may find himself back at his dad’s place, without any job.   But he takes this chance because of a deep interest in Japan.  He is following his dream.

And my point is this.   Every time we privilege STEM and kill an opportunity in the Humanities, by eliminating Japanese or Chinese or philosophy through a slow death by a thousand cuts, we diminish our own culture by reducing opportunity for those who DO NOT WANT to pursue STEM careers.  We eschew diversity and diminish our students’ competitive advantage in the global market place.



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