restricted access Humanities, Social Sciences, and the Urgency of Public Relevance
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Humanities, Social Sciences, and the Urgency of Public Relevance

In December 2012, the state legislature in Florida proposed the creation of a two-tier system of tuition for students in the state’s public universities, freezing the rate for majors in “strategic areas” such as engineering and biotechnology but allowing them to increase for all other majors. As a New York Times article put it, “The message from Tallahassee could not be blunter: Give us engineers, scientists, health care specialists and technology experts. Do not worry so much about historians, philosophers, anthropologists and English majors.”1 One could easily have added ethnic studies, sociology, and political science to the list of lower priorities. The effort in Florida would have been shocking were it not for the many other attempts over recent years at universities—mostly public but also private—to slash their humanities offerings or, perhaps less drastically, to place them under greater scrutiny and force them to justify their continued existence.2 Indeed, in several instances, social science disciplines have also found themselves falling out of favor, as public officials portray liberal arts education in a broad brush, as producing research and undergraduate education that are of little value to states and localities.

There are a host of reasons why the social sciences and humanities are under greater scrutiny and pressure than ever before. The soaring cost of higher education has certainly played a role, as those footing the bill—from parents and students to taxpayers and legislators—increasingly expect to see a tangible (read monetary) return on their educational investment.3 These concerns get especially heightened during times of high unemployment, as new graduates find it increasingly difficult to get a job and fears of joblessness filter their way even to those entering college.4 Interestingly, these job market concerns about liberal arts majors persist despite [End Page 91] evidence to the contrary, that their employment prospects are on par with those for students in science and engineering.5 Beyond labor market concerns (whether real or perceived), other transformations in society have also played a role in diminishing the perceived value of humanities and social sciences. These include a growing aversion to tax increases, growing distrust of university administration, and growing sense that humanities classes can be delivered cheaply through massive online open courses, or MOOCs.6 Finally, even macro-historical factors such as the end of the Cold War are relevant, with declines in government support for language programs and area studies programs that often play synergistic roles with ethnic studies programs in many campuses.

While there are many larger, structural reasons for the declining relevance of liberal arts on college campuses, the relative insulation of faculty in the humanities and social sciences is also partly to blame. Over time, our fields have grown increasingly specialized and professionalized, and our language has become increasingly technical and jargonistic—isolating us not only from each other but also from the larger communities in which we operate. This development is painfully ironic for programs in ethnic studies and women’s studies, which owed their very creation to campus protests and movement-building work with local communities. Indeed, contrary to the claims of some contemporary critics that the external politics of “race, class and gender” have diminished the value of a humanities education,7 the reverse has occurred. Scholarship on Asian Americans and other communities of color has imitated developments in other humanistic fields, becoming more inward-looking, technical, and disconnected from the work of local communities and movements.

This transformation has occurred because of the powerful role of professional norms and incentives that encourage greater refinement and specialization, and that discourage public outreach in teaching and research. These norms get enforced at various levels: by colleagues deciding on hiring, merit, and promotion; by administrators seeking to maximize institutional prestige; by journal editors seeking greater impact within the academy; and even by publishers who resist moves toward open journal access. As a consequence, local communities and the larger public do not have a clear understanding of our work, and why it is essential for understanding critical developments in politics and society. And this, in turn, makes it...