Many of you probably heard about North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory’s attack on liberal arts education on the Bill Bennett Old-Timey 180-Minute Hate Radio Program. He argued that the state should invest its money in fields like “mechanics” instead of liberal arts degrees, because vocational training will help North Carolinians get jobs. (Is he unfamiliar with his state’s community colleges, which offer a range of Vo-Tech programs? I guess so.)
Have you ever heard of that old story about Winston Churchill refusing to engage in a battle of wits against an unarmed man? McCrory’s comments were more of the seat-of-the-pants playing-to-the base pulled-out-of-his-a$$ kind, and far from a well-crafted policy paper or legislative proposal, but historian Lisa Levenstein of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, has published a vigorous response arguing for the value of the liberal arts, and even for the value of women’s studies programs in an op-ed at News-Record.com:
Today’s labor force also depends on work by women, who now comprise about half of all U.S. workers. Yet McCrory exhibited particular disdain for courses in “gender studies,” suggesting that this discipline has nothing useful to contribute to the challenges confronting North Carolinians. At UNCG, teachers and students in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program explore pressing issues ranging from breast cancer to homelessness. They create strategies to eradicate domestic violence and analyze how women’s labor force participation fosters global economic development.
Graduates of the program have built meaningful careers as counselors, sign language interpreters, teachers and advocates for the mentally ill, positions that not only contribute to the economy but also foster the well-being of our communities. These students are workers, parents and engaged citizens, and they make our lives better.
McCrory and many others in his party would benefit from taking stock of the Election Day losses suffered by Republicans such as Todd Akin, whose comments about “legitimate rape” incited a firestorm of controversy. If more Republican candidates had taken courses in gender studies, they might have retained their jobs last November.
Levenstein knows whereof she writes. In December, she published a major essay co-written by Cornelia Hughes Dayton in the Journal of American History called “The Big Tent of U.S. Women’s and Gender History: A State of the Field,” in which they review a voluminous literature and describe its major themes and contributions to American history as a whole. Don’t miss the twenty pages of comments from other scholars that follow it, too. (In case you’re wondering: yes, my book is discussed, and I’m even quoted! Page 809 if you’re interested. I’m really flattered to be in such good company.)
I’m sure this essay was put to bed months before Todd Akin became a feminist Punchinello, but his emergence reflects one of the major trends Levenstein and Dayton discuss, that of reproductive labor:
In the past decade, historical scholarship has pointed to the centrality of reproductive labor not only in constructing economic relationships but also in shaping U.S. politics writ large. This emphasis reflects the politicization of women’s reproductive labors in late twentieth-century struggles over immigration, welfare for single mothers, eldercare, abortion, and birth control. Those present-day controversies have encouraged women’s and gender historians to probe the transnational history of reproductive politics and ask new questions about how reproductive labor shaped the political and economic structures of the past.
I’m glad Levenstein picked up the other end of the rope. These arguments against the liberal arts are even more common than tornadoes in Tornado Alley, but they need to be engaged. However, I am keeping my finger off the panic button, as one of the lessons of the Great Recession I’ve learned is that in times of economic uncertainty, students gravitate towards the disciplines that offer timeless value rather than vocational training. I can’t tell you the numbers of students I’ve worked with who have either switched to History from a Journalism major, or have decided to take a second B.A. in History, because of the collapse of journalism.
History is what students study when they like to read, but think that majoring in English will look too flaky for their law or professional school applications. Furthermore, History is what a lot of politicians majored in while they were planning for that law school-state rep.-congressional-gubernatorial track, so it’s appropriate that historians take the lead in defending the value of the liberal arts more generally. There may be short-term political gain in joining the ignorance caucus, but my guess is that the professional study and teaching of history will outlast them by decades, if not centuries.