Want to defend Higher Education? Invest in Humanities Research.

There is no doubt that there is a growing and more vocal distrust of Higher Education in the United States. From free speech to rising tuition there are lots of reasons many do not trust higher education whether warranted or not. The major issue seems to be that higher education is struggling to show it’s value. While there is data we can point to supporting a case for higher education, in my opinion, there is not enough research in the humanities which develops an education narrative. So, despite the numbers being mostly in our favor the lack of narrative is hurting our case for education leaving us open to qualitative attack from those who want to diminish our value.

This discourse is even seeping into the election season. Recently, Florida Gubernatorial Candidate Adam Putnam produced an ad questioning the value of a college degree.

Now, to be fair, Mr. Putnam has been a supporter of the State Universities in Florida and has been an advocate for higher education in general. He was not saying no one should go to college but he clearly has issues with college as a destination for all. I tend to agree. But listen to the tone of the ad, it is clearly aimed at taking us down a notch or two. Even the very publication that reports on the state of higher education has created buzz with headlines like Why Does the Public Distrust Higher Ed? and How Ed Schools Became a Menace. In both cases there were strong cases made that it is the internal functions of higher education that was hurting the reputation of higher education. Be it Higher Ed programs focusing too much on microagressions or universities recruiting too many women and thus creating educational gender imbalances there are misguided arguments everywhere.

It could be, research into the human condition be it economics, language, social and societal culture, and other subjects is not happening with the frequency and depth we need to to change the narrative. And I am writing specifically about direct, funded research and development spending on the humanities. This is about more than a better marketing plan or a communications plan. While both are also indispensable they are a conduit for the message. But for our communications and marketing folks to be effective they need the narrative and research first. Humanities research gives us a chance to level the playing field. By placing higher education under a microscope via humanities research we can broaden the way others react and feel about our colleges. Of course humanities research is not just education research. It is research into sociology, psychology, history, culture, and other subjects to broaden our understanding of the world around us but I blog on education so . . . .

Few invest in humanities research more than the three universities in the Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Research Universities. In 2016 Florida International University (ranked #4), University of Central Florida (ranked #9) and University of South Florida (ranked #13) all made large investments in the humanities and all three were ranked in the top 15 of public universities investing in Humanities research. Together we spent nearly $20 million in humanities research in 2016. Combined that is more than any single university public or private, save the University of Michigan.

Our member universities are researching better education pipelines through data analytics, addressing literacy rates, and developing broad interdisciplinary programs which also include the STEM fields. And this is important. Because despite $20 million spent and lots of institutional momentum, investing in humanities R&D is a small fraction of total research spending. According to the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, Humanities R&D made up only .6% of the total spent by science and engineering fields. So, a drop in the bucket but if we can hook into some of the science R&D that can help expand access to resources quickly.

But to see three universities with strong STEM research traditions investing in the humanities is exciting. These investments give us an opportunity to tell the stories of education in ways that data and science can’t. Through humanities research histories are preserved, perspectives are considered, and stereotypes are challenged. So, if you want to help improve higher education’s position, then invest in the Humanities. Seems like a good idea.

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