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18 Oct

[Prefatory Note: Having spent more than 70 years within privileged enclaves of advanced education, my only regret is the weakness of community cohesion due to evaluations of the worth of faculty members by relying on market assessments, that is, what a person could earn outside the university if put up for sale, or what a rival university might offer to lure a person elsewhere. My vague thoughts along these lines were given focus by the brutal frankness of this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Joshua Angrist. This post reflects on Professor Angrist unqualified rationale for leaving his faculty position at Hebrew University in Jerusalem for a higher paying professorship at MIT. It would might seem crass to choose your country of residence by reference to its material offerings, especially if your preferred country provided you with a decent living, as was the case here, but to denigrate the humanities because they were being equally valued at an Israeli university with economics and computer science is what makes Professor Angrist emblematic. The put down of literature is mindlessly irresponsible and civilizationally obtuse at a time of unprecedented bio-ethical-ecological crisis when the humanities alone offer essential insight into prospects for a transformational adjustment.]

On Denigrating the Humanities

I was reading with interest the profile of Joshua Angrist in the Jerusalem Post, the Israeli-American MIT economist who shared this year’s Nobel Prize in economics with two others when I came upon this uncongenial sentence:Angrist said he was frustrated that many salaries, particularly in academia, were set using fixed pay grades, with professors in fields such as computer science and economics being paid the same as professors of literature, instead of being set by market forces, as they are elsewhere.”

Angrist apparently was much earlier deeply at odds with the way in which academic salaries were set in Israel. His words of 15 years ago were reprinted in The Jerusalem Post:  “I was tired of the situation here. The Israeli system does not reflect the reality of pay differential by field. It’s the public system, and it’s not very flexible.” It seems to me that Israel was engaged in admirable initiative–treating a university as a community of scholars where knowledge flourished across disciplinary borders without affixing price tags on the comparative value of differing ways of knowing to be determined by market forces. An alternative approach would be to seek higher, apparently more appropriate salaries for the faculty across the board, which might have helped create a contented community instead of alienated economists and computer geeks who rushed for the exits whenever a foreign university offered more money to attract an Israel professor.

There is a further disturbing implication of Angrist’s invidious comparison. It is as if literature, and presumably the humanities overall, were a superfluous luxury in a society where computer science and economics are valued highly by the market. The language used Angrist made clear in his view that it is the market without a scintilla of doubt that deserves to be treated as the authoritative arbiter of comparative educational valuations, and specifically faculty salaries. The Israeli journalist reported what Angrist declared without comment as his article was primarily concerned with solving the puzzle of why talented Israelis, such as Angrist, were emigrating elsewhere, in effect, interpreting a damaging brain drain. It is seems that Angrist’s personal reasons for leaving Israel were not only honest but descriptive of why many other professors valued highly in the academic marketplace were drawn elsewhere by the lure of larger paychecks.

Perhaps, displaying my own cultural malaise, I recall my educational experience as being primarily valuable for what I learned and retained from courses in the humanities. As an undergraduate at Penn’s highly rated Wharton Business School. I took 17 economics courses without any lasting effect on my sense of the world, or effectiveness in it, but received inspiration and an enduring worldview from several charismatic professors in the humanities that continues to enrich my life more than 70 years later.

Especially as an undergraduate I learned to love literature and philosophy, precious lifelong gifts. I suppose I would have been less put off by Angrist’s comment if it had been uttered with even the slightest show of regret or collegial sensitivity rather than uttered in a derisive tone that conveyed, at least to me, an crude economistic attitude ‘that the market knows best.’ I should observe that Angrist and his wife deeply regretted leaving Israel, explaining the decision as purely one of choosing the material benefits offered by the job at MIT. Although American born, Angrist emigrated to Israel in 1982 when he was in his early twenties as someone committed to the Zionist vision of a Jewish state, turning down a job at Harvard after earning his PhD at Princeton so that he might resume his life in Israel, being married to an Israeli woman and having a son born in Israel. Angrist has clearly lived a bi-national life with acknowledged tensions between the material rewards of a high salary and the unproblematic satisfactions he apparently continues to derive from the Israeli dimensions of his life.

The issue is far larger than one of personal preferences. Humanities mirror the culture, its deepest strivings, grievances, shortcomings. In my experience we cannot look to economics and computer science for how we could collectively live better together as distinct from guidance as to policy and technical problems of digital communication. Humanities are the repositories of wisdom, beauty, romance, and moral grandeur in human experience, although even poets can sometimes subscribe to demonic constructions of the world around them. At this time, more than any other, when the species is struggling with a severe bio-ethical-ecological crisis we desperately need to nurture the visionary apertures of the imagination rather than disparage them.

In my preferred academic community, there would be no differentiations based on price tags, and a sense that different knowledge traditions were equally indispensable if graduates were to be engaged citizens at a time of planetary emergency as well as enjoy productive careers outside the ivy walls.

In concluding, I wish that I could dismiss Joshua Angrist’s uncongenial worldview as a regressive and idiosyncratic departure from the cultural norms rather than being compelled to acknowledge that he is far truer representative of the national, and even the global body politic, than I am. Mine remains a voice at the outer edge of cultural relevance, yet I hear faint signs of a civilizational  awakening in the primary forms of surrounding birds, trees, and flowers, and that is enough for me, yet I know it is not sufficient to rescue the collective destiny of our species speeding toward calamity. Such a liberating rescue if it comes, will come from transformational wisdom best encoded in the humanities. In the meantime, self-satisfied economists and software engineers can collect Nobel Prizes and earn lofty salaries for their day jobs, superciliously denigrating humanists from the comfort of their deck chairs on the final cruise of the restored Titanic.