This $75 million gift might make higher ed question its obsession with science and tech

Investor Bill Miller is betting that today’s students can prosper from studying philosophers like Socrates and Plato. Anastasios71/

This $75 million gift might make higher ed question its obsession with science and tech

During his unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Marco Rubio made the dubious (and grammatically unsound) assertion that “we need more welders and less philosophers.”

Bill Miller clearly disagrees with the Florida senator.

Miller, a prominent investor who spent three years studying philosophy at Johns Hopkins University as a graduate student, recently gave that school US$75 million to support its philosophy department. The famed stock picker’s donation, the largest ever by far to any philosophy program and among the biggest for a specific humanities field, stands out for a good reason. Generosity on that scale to support science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM disciplines, is far more common.

As the director of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University, a STEM-steeped institution, part of my job is to counter the pressure from politicians, high school counselors and parents that is driving students into these fields and away from subjects like history, literature or philosophy based on a belief that studying the humanities cannot lead to professional success. Only 25 first-year students in a class of 1,200 at my school said they intended to declare a humanities subject as their primary major.

I believe gifts like Miller’s will help scholars like me make our case that more students should embrace the humanities.

Humanities vs. STEM giving

Miller just doesn’t buy the conventional wisdom about the impracticality of studying the humanities.

“I attribute much of my business success to the analytical training and habits of mind that were developed when I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins,” said the investor, who took a single philosophy class while majoring in economics as an undergraduate at Washington and Lee University.

His gift is part of a broader trend in academic giving, which has bounced back from the sharp decline brought about by the Great Recession.

Higher-education donations totaled $43.6 billion in 2017, a 6.3 percent increase over the previous year. Johns Hopkins, which just concluded a $5 billion capital campaign, racked up $637 million of that total.

While relatively little of this money for colleges and universities targeted the humanities, the liberal arts fields devoted to the study of human culture, giving to the humanities has soared over the past decade. These donations rose 26 percent between 2005 and 2015, which is actually less than half the 57 percent climb for higher education overall. Total donations for all colleges and universities increased from $25.6 billion in 2005 to $40.3 billion in 2015.

Despite being smaller than all of the 14 biggest higher-ed gifts of 2017, Miller’s donation is the largest donation to support the humanities at a university since 2006.

Studying the humanities vs. STEM

Hopkins will use Miller’s gift to increase its philosophy faculty from 13 to 22 and expand programs for graduate and undergraduate students at a time when many universities are downsizing humanities departments.

His bet on philosophy comes as students are losing interest in the humanities.

The share of bachelor’s degrees awarded in humanities disciplines peaked at 15 percent in 2005, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It fell to 12 percent by 2015, the lowest since 1987, and the total number of students getting these degrees also declined.

Most commentators see these trends as a sign that students are responding to market needs in the wake of the Great Recession.

STEM’s questionable crisis

At the same time, there are scholars who question the arguments driving STEM philanthropy.

There’s simply no evidence that the U.S. lacks the scientists or engineers it needs, as many donors claim. Indeed, universities often churn out more STEM graduates than the job market can absorb.

Demographer Michael Teitelbaum debunks conventional STEM thinking in his book, “Falling Behind? Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent.”

Corporate and political leaders have sounded alarms over a supposed shortage of young workers equipped with STEM degrees five times since the end of World War II, Teitelbaum observes.

For example, the National Research Council claimed in 2005 that inadequate numbers of scientists and engineers constituted a “creeping crisis” threatening U.S. economic prosperity and security. Teitelbaum finds these claims to be unsubstantiated. He says that explains why STEM enrollment surges after every false alarm, precipitating surplus graduates.

Oh, the humanities

Given the recurring glut of scientists and engineers, I believe that Miller is responding to the workforce’s need for the soft skills of the humanities, such as critical thinking, communication and cultural awareness. After all, as Apple’s Steve Jobs once said,

“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough – that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Steve Jobs, the humanities proponent, in his own words.

For all the fretting by the likes of Marco Rubio, employers covet these skills. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences finds that while humanities graduates do earn less than their STEM counterparts, they are in fact employed and making a living. The median salary for a humanities graduate in 2015 was $52,000. That was less than the $82,000 for an engineering graduate, but equal to graduates in the life sciences. And earlier studies show that the income difference between the humanities and other disciplines narrows over time.

What’s more, at 4.3 percent, the unemployment rate for humanities graduates in 2015 was only slightly higher than the 3 percent rate for graduates in all fields. And humanities graduates are every bit as satisfied with their jobs.

Perhaps advocates for the humanities don’t need to be defensive about the declining interest in pursuing degrees in these fields, which can lead to a meaningful as well as lucrative career.

For, as investor Bill Miller has said with his big gift, the humanities are just as as important for the fabric of our society and our economy as science, technology, engineering and math.