New Republic Phoney-Baloney Excuse for Propping Up Liberal Arts Education: A Bunch of Cool Sci-Fi That Has Nothing to Do With Liberal Arts Education


A real head-scratcher over at New Republic from its science editor Judith Shulevitz. 

Thesis: lots of governments are supposedly slashing support for college level liberal arts education. We need to convince them it's valuable. 

So, saith Shulevitz:

If the criterion for funding areas of study must be that they add to American wealth and competitiveness, then I'd like to offer my own only half-unserious case for the liberal arts. I propose that they should survive, and thrive, because they give us science fiction, and science fiction creates jobs and makes us rich.

Yes, there is a decent case to be made that many of the wonders of techno-modernity arose from researchers who were inspired by science fiction, though it's a controversial declaration, likely overstated in cases and not a dead-shot proven one. 

To buttress the point she talks of the work of Jules Verne, H.G Wells, Neal Stephenson, Ursula Le Guin, Orson Scott Card, and William Gibson. In most cases, there is no clear and inarguable connection between literary idea and real-world achievement in the first place, or at least no proof that the technical achievement could not have happened before being vaguely discussed or imagined in different form in science fiction.

More importantly, all these writers did their work as popular entertainers in the free market, not as academics kept going by state funding for liberal arts higher education.

Shulevitz then goes very far afield by noting that the not-useful-to-reality (though perfectly entertaining) Foundation novels of Isaac Asimov relied on the Roman History work of Edward Gibbons (who was himself, although his work is now esconsed within the "liberal arts education," another producer of useful scholarship and entertainment outside the university nexus–Gibbons called his time at Oxford the "most idle and unprofitable of his life") and seems to believe Asimov's interesting but in practice pernicious notion of elite-predictive "psychohistory" is a boon to mankind.

This is not to say that the work studied in liberal arts programs is not a boon to mankind in an overarching way, though her use of science fiction to make this case seems particularly strange.

It is highly unlikely that any scientist or inventor inspired by science fiction was exposed to that science fiction in a university class (although the likes of LeGuin are making it into an academic canon these days), so why is that supposed to say anything about why government needs to fund liberal arts education?

Especially in a world where everyone everywhere has access to a vast quantity and growing of written and pictorial works–state funded higher education is by no means the only way, or even the best way, to guarantee that anyone has access to these works, to be inspired by in their own literary or scientific work. 

To sum up Shulevitz's best case: works written by people outside liberal arts academia, read by people outside liberal arts academia, works which may have been shaped by previous work also produced by people outside liberal arts academia, might have helped make the world a better place, so government needs to fund liberal arts academia. 

It's an intriguing argument, to be sure.