Analogy and the History of Comparatism

Right now I’m working on a long article about the cross-disciplinary history of the modern comparative method. It’s really, really interesting to read disciplinary histories from across the humanities & social sciences (mainly linguistics, anthropology, sociology, political science, history, and literature) and see how different fields and their objects inflect basic questions about the nature of change, the implications of pattern, and the relation between historical and synchronic/contextual perspectives. The article tests a key argument from my book, The Age of Analogy (a claim for the interplay of “analogy” and “comparison” in the formation of the modern comparative method), by looking at disciplines beyond literary and scientific history, and considering scholarship in French and German, as well as English.

If I wanted to be cheekily topical in that article (and I don’t), I would point to the comparisons that people are now drawing between the crowd sizes at the 2009 and 2017 presidential inaugurations. Such comparison is (1) meant to gauge something about the distinctions between two different political formations and two different moments in historical time, and (2) is necessarily structured by analogy. To read the comparison is to recognize the relation between a common structuring spatial scheme (the Mall), and its service as a framework for a series of implicit analogical relations, which can be summarized in the form “A is to B as C is to D,” or A : B :: C : D. The most obvious implied analogy here: Obama’s 2009 crowd size : enthusiasm for Obama :: Trump’s 2017 crowd size : enthusiasm for Trump. (I note that the counter arguments offered by Sean Spicer and others center on why the two situations aren’t analogous: there were white ground coverings in 2017, new delays in the security, etc.).

This isn’t an example used in the article, which will (hopefully) be out sometime toward the end of this year, but I thought I’d share here my [lightly edited] response for our MLA panel in Philadelphia a few weeks ago on “Analogy after the Enlightenment.” It was organized by Adam Sneed and Taylor Schey, and featured impressive papers by Taylor, Elizabeth Duquette, and Ken Hirschkop.

The question I want to begin with: why should we study analogy? Listening to these papers, the answers seem to be (generalizing broadly — and what is the job of respondent but to generalize?):

(1) We should study analogy because (as Taylor accurately notes) it has been positioned as a key marker for the transition between Enlightenment/Augustan poetics and Romanticism (a formulation that has helped make sure it was almost entirely overlooked in the C19). To return to analogy, in his account, then means to refigure the deep Romantic investment in relationality and uncertainty in a longer framework — one that wouldn’t require us to forget the eighteenth century (or even the rest of the 19th in the signature Romantic leap to modernism), but recognize a more continuous narrative.

(2) In Elizabeth’s account, the turn to analogy helps us rethink the philosophical coordinates of the mid-nineteenth century novel, or at least, Melville and the way that philosophical discourse presents a problem for the novel’s investment in incident and character, forcing it to tell rather than to show. So, to return to Taylor’s argument, if the Romantics put paid to analogy, and Anglophone print culture was truly transAtlantic, it should be deeply surprising that analogy remained a concern for mid-nineteenth century novels (popping up also in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and George Eliot’s Felix Holt).

(3) Finally, as Ken explains (with extraordinary precision), analogy was not only important to linguistics, but perhaps the most important formal procedure for the formation of Saussure’s structural distinction between langue and parole. If this is true (and I think it is), this means that analogy is central to the structural turn — an unacknowledged founding move that helped to birth many of the critical procedures that we gesture to when we say (or used to say) postmodern or poststructural.

To these I would add that there’s a strong argument to be made for analogy’s central role in new historicism (as Alan Liu has argued) by way of Clifford Geertz and American-school social anthropology, with its focus on comparing thin and thick description, text and context. And it was also an important procedure for Marxist formalist criticism, with its profound but compulsive concern for the relation between economic or productive “base” and cultural “super structure.” Even a work like Frederic Jameson’s Political Unconscious — a book that continues to be a central pivot for our reconsiderations and anxieties about what it is that we do when we do literary scholarship — can be seen as an extended meditation on the Marxist problem of “reflection,” which is most simply just another disciplinary specification of a dynamic that, in a longer history, was called “analogy.”

So: Why do we study analogy? For lots of good reasons. Analogy is part of the story of how we got here. And in the current political moment, the story of how we got here seems really, really important.

A further question might be: How might we flesh out what analogy means, particularly in the nineteenth century, when its cultural, methodological, and philosophical meanings were (and are still) in flux?

As I have recently argued, in my book, “The Age of Analogy” (just out from Johns Hopkins Press), both analogy and comparison — as terms and as methods — were fundamentally reformulated in the transition from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century — in the transition that put us “after the Enlightenment.”

Analogy, which had played an important role in Western philosophy, Christian metaphysics and philology, had long represented a strategy of relational analysis that studied similarity. First stop. Comparison, on the other hand, was largely incubated in the classical rhetorical tradition as a way to underline contrasts and distinctions. Second stop. The modern comparative method emerged when these two traditions were brought together and focused on the problem of studying both how things are similar and different — what we now call, in primary education, to “compare and contrast.”

When I first stumbled upon this claim, while writing yet another abstract of the book to be, it seemed so simple, it simply couldn’t be true. With the benefit of several more years I can say, not only is it true, but it applies not only to English, but to academic writing in French (where the operative terms are “comparaison” and “analogie”) and German (and the terms “vergleich” and “analogie”). Not only that, but this reformulation of analogy and comparison played an important role in the formation of the modern humanist disciplines, organizing in important ways not only how people like Matthew Arnold thought about culture, as an object and as a hermeneutic, but more generally, in the formation of anthropology, biology, sociology, religious studies, philology/linguistics, mythology, political science, and of course, literary criticism in English. At the most general level, analogy structured the linguistic and cultural turns that later dominated 20th century humanism.

Seen through this lens, analogy starts to look less like our peculiar hobbyhorse — that rhetorical figure that for some reason has seemed less sexy than metaphor, allegory, or symbol — and more like an important engine for the disciplinary formation of the modern humanities.

And yet it’s quite rare, not just in English literary criticism, but in the various disciplinary histories that I’ve been reading recently, truly rare for anyone to talk about the relation between comparison and analogy. This is true even in a field like linguistics that, despite having retained the term “analogy” for a specific language phenomenon, as Ken explained, virtually never considers the importance of analogy to the formation of the comparative method, a moment that essentially birthed modern linguistics from the older traditions of philology, translation, and rhetoric. Analogy in linguistics, as in Romanticism and most fields of comparative analysis, remains a kind of abject term that denominates outmoded or problematic practices even as we happily go along comparing and contrasting. What else, for instance, might we call the “relational comparison” of Édouard Glissant & Shu-mei Shih? Or the “equivalences that do not unify” described by Franz Fanon and Natalie Melas? Virtually all modern disciplines, comparative literature not excepted, have amassed a range of new terms that have formalized procedures that were once more loosely termed “analogies.” (A bit closer to my disciplinary home, I don’t know if anyone else here was at the panel yesterday on “‘Victorian’ in a comparative field,” but in spite of some really impressive accounts of the past, present, and future of comparative literary studies, the term “analogy” never came up.) This is surprising and truly interesting if you believe (as I do) that there is no comparatism, historically or methodologically speaking, without “analogy.”

Conspicuous absence arguments are always a kind of a critical Mcguffin, but I do think we should think more about why this is so. Why is it that discussions of comparatism don’t invoke analogy as an important critical object, and vice versa? I hope we can start to think more but also talk more about the relation between analogy and comparison. For one thing, it would help us in thinking concretely about the expressive forms and generic histories of comparative study. This isn’t simply a question of intellectual history; to overlook analogy’s place in the modern comparative method is to overlook the basic formal structure that allows comparatism to operate.

To put it differently, it might be more appropriate to think of analogy as a network of affiliated practices, each with important histories and contexts, rather than as a stable object or single tradition. To adapt Franco Moretti’s argument in his most influential essay, “Conjectures on World Literature,” (which itself draws demonstrably on disciplinary arguments over the nature of analogy within comparative literature and anthropology as well as evolutionary biology); as I say, to adopt Moretti’s argument, we might study analogy as an interplay of waves and trees. On the one hand, we might study analogies in the waves of interdisciplinary contact through which relational analysis is adapted to new phenomena — often founding or substantially remaking entire fields of study. But we might also study analogy through trees of influence, through narratives of differentiation that trace the network of those operations over time and study the patterns of these engagements. This would also help us place the importance of specific applications and discoveries of analogy within the wider humanities.

A final problem is that, if analogy is in fact central to humanist scholarship, its historical study inevitably depends on its object as method. This isn’t a new problem, but certainly demands that we think carefully about how the dynamic we identify as “analogy” plays into our study of its various applications.

So, we should keep talking about analogy after the Enlightenment. Because it might be the case that analogy helps describe a big chunk of what happened in our disciplines after the Enlightenment. “After the Enlightenment,” after all, is shorthand for modernity, so let’s keep thinking about how analogy helps explain (or perhaps pose) our modern condition. Thanks.

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V21 @ INCS2015: The Chicago School of Victorian Studies

Chicago ca 1838 (Francis Castelnau, credit Wikimedia)

Sometimes it’s great to be last to a party. I just heard about the V21 Collective at INCS 2015 (my thanks and congrats to Narin Hassan + organizers for a huge success in Atlanta). I’ve had my head down trying to meet a big deadline and I’ve been almost completely absent from Facebook and Twitter. I’m less a Luddite than someone trying to actively manage a long addiction to technology. So I was surprised to learn about a debate, organized around a central manifesto, that placed some of my favorite scholars and good friends on both sides of a line in the sand.

The virtue and vice of manifestos is that they draw these lines. They’re inhospitable to the qualifications, allowances, readings, and citations that would fill out a more careful conversation and blunt the cutting edge. This allows them to be both gleeful and urgent, playful and purposeful. It’s fun to write that a spectre is haunting Victorian Studies. And we do feel haunted even if we have trouble seeing its shape. This is a great chance to engage that problem.

Chicago continues to hum along as an intellectual engine in part because it has been so savvy at leveraging the particular strengths of its faculties and its institutional resources, especially the U Chicago Press. And this is a smart opportunity to drum up some interest and help draw Victorian Studies into a warmer conversation that can excite energy, interest, and (most important to those of us pre-tenure) publications. Ben Morgan continues to help us think around the corner in advocating for venues that draw younger Victorian scholars into conversation at formative stages in their work. And while I haven’t met Anna Kornbluh yet I’m excited to talk about her book when we do. I met most of the folks now in V21 for the first time when we joined for the informal workshop that Ben organized at NAVSA here in Los Angeles. It was thrilling, electric. And the upcoming V21 symposium in Chicago is an auspicious way to collect some of this energy and give new charge to the discipline we work in. One can almost feel through the rails the vibrations of a coming special issue of Critical Inquiry. Maybe I fantasize.

I have to say, I struggle to draw lines myself, so it’s been hugely interesting to read the manifesto and some of the circulating criticism and responses. My immediate and lasting reaction is excitement. Finally (I still feel) there’s an active debate that has people widely engaged and talking but doesn’t feature the “crisis in the humanities” or the terrors of the anthropocene (I’m not a hater, btw; I talk about both issues regularly).

But in talking about the debate with folks at INCS I gathered that few of us are really sure where this new line is, even if we share a general sense that we know what kind of scholarship is being targeted. One way to put it, in accord with Kathy Psomiades, is that we generally agree on the difference between a good and bad conference paper, but it’s easier to diagnose these in terms of the characteristic failures of a specific talk than the characteristics of bad papers generally. To paraphrase Anna Karenina, I think good papers share a basic felicity, but bad papers are bad in their own special ways.

So in the spirit of collective inquiry, I’d like to pitch in and help identify what makes good work compelling. Manifestos, above all, are a call to roll up our shirtsleeves. I’m sure we can all think about theses we’d like to see.* 10 is an arbitrary but shapely number. But I think, in the spirit of the manifesto’s format, it’s more appropriate to engage theses individually rather than in the negative or en masse. So I want to take up the first thesis, because I think it demonstrates both the strength and basic challenge of the boundary that is drawn:

1. Victorian Studies has fallen prey to positivist historicism: a mode of inquiry that aims to do little more than exhaustively describe, preserve, and display the past. Among its symptoms are a fetishization of the archival; an aspiration to definitively map the DNA of the period; an attempt to reconstruct the past wie es eigentlich gewesen; an endless accumulation of mere information. At its worst, positivist historicism devolves into show-and-tell epistemologies and bland antiquarianism. Its primary affective mode is the amused chuckle. Its primary institutional mode is the instrumentalist evisceration of humanistic ways of knowing.

In sharpening the distinction between good & bad Victorian Studies, the V21 authors have settled on the entrenched opposition between a sophisticated engagement with contemporary critical theory and what I think is more clearly a soft new historicism. This has really gotten under people’s skin. I think what we need instead is a discrimination between good and bad historicisms, and I want to explain why. For one, I’m guessing that “new historicism” doesn’t appear in the manifesto (instead of “positivist historicism”) because, even if most of the “bland antiquarianism” they identify operates under that paradigm’s blunter edge, the authors recognize that new historicism, at its cutting edge, was driven by deep and substantive theoretical reflection. It’s been almost twelve years (!) since Andrew Miller observed that “Victorian literature seems, on the evidence of [that] year’s publications, to remain confidently immured within an orthodox, loosely new-historical set of historiographical assumptions, devoted to understanding and judging individual texts by appeal to historical contexts sometimes richly-but often poorly-conceived” (SEL Autumn, 2003). Clearly the V21 authors don’t think that much has changed. I generally agree, but I think Miller gives a more precise definition of the problem. In making that point he also had the benefit of a review format, with the institutional capital and professional status to show us precise examples of what he meant. So perhaps we want a “newer historicism”?

Moreover, I think “positivist historicism” is an unfortunate substitute for new historicism, because in the service of a strong generalization, it reinscribes an even looser set of assumptions about what terms like “positivist” and “historicism” mean, when we Victorianists, of all literary scholars, need more precision. We can’t rely on Walter Benjamin’s Theses on History when characterizing two of the dominant historical paradigms of the nineteenth-century. First, “historicism.” If Benjamin carefully studied Leopold von Ranke’s Geschichte der romanischen und germanischen Völker, I’ll eat my hat.** Ranke’s point in describing a history “wie es eigentlich gewesen” was that writing history was both a science and an art; historians should bring imaginative intuition in contact with strict critical attention, and set aside facile moralization or “lessons” (see Frederick Beiser’s discussion in The German Historicist Tradition (2011)). Who doesn’t agree with that? And if I do have to eat my hat, I’m still not sure why we should turn to Ranke or Benjamin (versus, say, Walter Scott) to characterize historicism for Victorian scholars or the Victorian period.

Similarly, Comtean positivism, for all of its late zaniness, was also a profound, and profoundly influential attempt to think beyond history as a “mere accumulation of facts”; to elucidate the general patterns of history and think about their theoretical as well as historical implications for present society.*** As Auguste Comte noted in Martineau’s translation of his Positive Philosophy (1853) positivism itself was just one of many systems that addressed “the necessity of observing facts in order to form a theory, and having a theory in order to observe facts.” Comte’s writings were among many adaptations of Claude Henri de Saint-Simon’s own scientific historicism, which supercharged a whole range of thinking about the texture of historical difference, formal transformation, and the political implications of intellectual labor for the present. You don’t get to Karl Marx without Saint-Simon. And isn’t there a connection between Comte’s critique of the “theological stage” and Marx’s “spectre”?

In an even longer view, that strain of positivism was important to Émile Durkheim and the Annales school of French historicism, with the strong focus on time series data and the cross-comparison of periods, and this in turn helped shape Michel Foucault’s thinking (as Thomas Flynn argued in his Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason, 2005). Foucault, a positive historicist? Sure, among other things.

In a long enough view, of course, everything is connected to everything. For any set of ideas there are a host of mitochondrial Eves; that’s the poverty of intellectual history. But these exercises are intriguing because they help us to think about how we might return to movements like positivism or the nineteenth-century historicist turn in search of fresh ways to think about our present concerns. This is what is fun about manifestos; they give us something concrete to think with, push against, push off of.

So instead I imagine a Thesis 1 that calls for dynamic historicisms, instead of a static historicism that explains text in terms of context; reflexive historicisms, rather than a reflective historicism that doesn’t see how the objects of study change their times; and most of all, historicisms that recognized the heterogeneity of historical understanding within the nineteenth century. Bah, an outmoded call for “reflexivity”? Why not? Reading Theses 1 this way, imaging my thinking as part of the qualifications that a manifesto does not permit, I understand V21 as a call to interrogate the historical procedures of the nineteenth century, in their connection with what we do today. To ask, in effect, who is the Victorian Foucault?

For what it’s worth, I think we do need, as Elaine Freedgood insists, to keep reading the basic theoretical texts that provide renewing precision and opportunity in thinking about our objects of study. That collection of touchstones continues to expand, particularly when we think critically and inventively about works in the nineteenth century. Surely, for instance, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species belongs in those ranks. Yet it’s my intuition (and here I agree with Ryan Fong) that renewed engagement happens in close contact with our teaching and as part of our effort to communicate our research and our ways of thinking to a larger audience. When I can catch someone’s interest over a dinner table, or I see a flash of recognition in the classroom, I know my formulation of a difficult perspective works.

At one of the INCS plenary sessions, on, appropriately, “Victorian Futures,” Dino Francis Felluga and Jay Clayton made the basic if sometimes uncomfortable point that our scholarship operates in a larger community of interests and yet (at least from my perspective) there are few institutional incentives to get our work out there, intervening in larger conversations. Under the conference theme of “mobility” Felluga and Clayton urged us to mobilize our work, to get it and its hefty insights out to more audiences. Some of the many approaches they analyzed look more promising than others. As a student of the digital humanities, I think (with Lauren Goodlad) it will play an important part. Maybe the V21 conversation as an opportunity to get us moving and get our work into the larger world beyond the paywall.

The more general point is that, in place of/alongside the renewed the “Presentism” proposed in V21’s Thesis 8 we (by which I mean we humanists generally) need a renewed evangelism. For some reason I feel like this is my most controversial suggestion. The fight for critical heft and innovation, in my view, is part of a larger fight for interest from graduating grade school seniors, the fight for relevance in the minds of parents and the larger community that encourage our students to choose specific paths, the fight for enrolment numbers. Students = jobs = better placement. Sure, we help our students see the light, but first we need them in our classrooms. Classes are our opportunity and we’re losing them. This isn’t particular to Victorian studies, but perhaps we can work on putting Victorian literature at the leading edge. This is a good start.

Finally, I hope this discussion proves a series of constructive lines in shifting sands; that we can work to reframe and develop the future of Victorian Studies without dividing it into camps. Aren’t we all historicists (of one stripe or another)? Who doesn’t know the year of Victoria’s accession? The first reform bill passed? That The Prelude & In Memoriam appeared? If we understand V21 as calling for renewed historicisms, as well as renewed formalisms, renewed digital humanities, renewed materialisms (the list goes on), it’s a really, really big tent. What can I say; I’m a social person. I’ll be excited to see everyone this summer, share a beer and plot our possible futures.

 

 

 

* As a side note, I can also imagine a thesis that addresses the problem of the “Victorian” as a period. I almost never self-identify this way unless I’m in some specific professional environment. Outside of those contexts, saying I’m a “Victorianist” provides a kind of characterization and a set of questions I’m not generally ready to tackle. Can we agree that among the major periodizations in English literature it’s the most challenging to justify? The period is explicitly defined in relation to a monarch rather than a set of ideas, historical movement, or dates. Sure, centennials and historical movements are arbitrary. As Martin Hewitt notes in his “10 Alternative Theses”, “all periods are contingent,” and I think this is their strength, if they are grasped and interrogated as such. But can you imagine someone in early modern studies saying, I’m a Jacobean? Victorian is on weakest footing as a periodizing term; as Priya Joshi has observed with respect to 20th-century India, it may be more intriguing to think about the work of the term and its literature outside of the normative bounds of period or geography (Yearbook of English Studies 2011). Irene Tucker, for instance, has given a persuasive account of how the period helps to designate a real transformation in historical sensibility, so that “by the time of [her] death, Victoria’s place has come to seem only the smallest part of what – and where – Victorianism is” (Victorian Studies Summer, 2003).

 

** I’m not ready/willing to dive into the Benjamin bibliography.

 

*** Of course, I realize that in using the term “positivist,” the authors mean rather what John Guillory has termed the “spontaneous philosophy of the critics” after Althusser (Critical Inquiry Winter 2002). But, as Guillory notes, positivism in this sense is more accurately the spontaneous philosophy of scientists; as an ethic of the transcendent value of the nude fact, it’s less meaningful (I hope) for Victorian Studies.

ICR2012: Zombies, Climate Change, and the End of the Two Cultures

Just got back from ICR 2012 in Tempe, AZ. Huge thanks to Ron Broglio and Mark Lussier for hosting (and to my friend Michael Gamer for organizing my panel). I made some new friends and had a hell of a time — too much fun, really. If you’re interested, I’ve put the talk I gave up here.

But I wanted to quickly jot down some take-aways. First, climate events had a much larger impact on the Romantic period than I’d understood — perhaps even helping catalyze the French Revolution. Second, in an era of climate worries and Zombie apocalypse obsessions, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man may end up having a larger influence than Frankenstein:

Finally, the marvelous Marilyn Gaull gave a talk on Romantic science that was an inspiring opener. Her main point: that the “two cultures” are never so far apart as they seem. But as I was mulling it over later, I realized that institutionally, it feels like the two culture divide is collapsing. At universities, the humanities and sciences are increasingly fighting a joint rear-guard action against the expansion of professional schools into their curriculum. After mulling this over with some others at the conference, I’m pretty sure this trend isn’t particular to the schools I’ve worked at.

Student Debt Headlines and the Humanities Degree

The New York Times and the Chronicle have mounted a one-two this week to publicize the problem of student debt (something I’ve posted on previously here and here and here).  In an extensive front-page story from Sunday, the Times lays out the problem from the perspective of undergraduates, and the Chronicle followed up today with an analysis of graduate recipients, particularly Ph.D.s working as adjunct faculty, that need welfare and other public-service benefits to make ends meet.  Both provide extensive analysis; the Times piece in particular leverages an extraordinary amount of statistical support.

The implications of the problem are broad, now that more than half of graduating seniors are going to college.  If college is fast becoming a prerequisite of stable middle-class employment, it seems clear we need policies that provide education without burying the students under a lifetime of debt.  I was fortunate enough to attend a state school on scholarship; many of my colleagues won’t finish paying off their educational loans for a decade or two.

One place where the Times piece suffers is in its analysis of the sources of the problem.   Continue reading

The David Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project, I Presume?


Yes, groan. But I spent this morning looking through the beautiful online collection produced by the David Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project. Livingstone’s 1871 field diary, from the months leading up to his ‘discovery’ by Morton Stanley, was written in a berry-based natural ink across the pages of newsprint, and has faded to near invisibility. Using spectral imaging (which images at distinct spectra and then recombines them), the team has managed to reveal the journal entries and strip out the original newsprint. The results are simply amazing — it reminds me of looking at Hubble images of distant nebula. Gorgeous, strange, new. In addition the the extensive documentation and supporting bibliographic and historical materials, the snazzy interface, which allows you to coordinate scrolling across the color and spectral facsimiles (as in the above image), is just stunning.

On the one hand, it’s a case of an extraordinary archival find (Adrian Wisnicki and Anne Martin’s recovery and reassembly of the often uncatalogued portions of the journal across several distinct accessions at the David Livingstone Center) combined with an ideal technology (the Archimedes Palimsest team brought their expertise to bear). But when you look at the extensive documentation provided, it’s also a window into the extraordinary challenge of producing collaborative, trans-Atlantic research in the digital humanities.
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ThatCampPenn 2012

I spent Wednesday on campus at Penn’s inaugural ThatCamp. It was set up by the Penn Library and the Penn Humanities Forum, and showed the promise and possibility of the “unconference” format, particularly when applied to something as tentative and collaborative as the digital humanities.

Amanda French, who came up from house THATCamp at George Mason and the Center for History and New Media. She set precisely the right open, collaborative, free-wheeling tone at the opening session, and it carried through. The thing that struck me most forcefully is that the open formatting creates environments that are extraordinarily friendly to non-specialists. Continue reading

Compounding Educational Debt

To add a quick note to yesterday’s post about the MLA’s statement regarding academic debt, Alex Gourevitch argues that debt has become a central plank not just of the American economy, but of how we organize that economy from the federal level on down. This only emphasizes that reigning in the costs of higher education and student debt demands federal as much as local action. Academia needs to work to make these national, as well as institutional and state-level issues.

(And on an unrelated note, Matt Yglesias suggests that Humanities majors, who it turns out are some of the hardest-working and best prepared students at universities, should probably receive more credit in the society at large. Yawp!)

The Value of a Humanities Degree

Inline with my ongoing discussion of the costs of higher education, I’ve noticed a lot of recent discussion that tries to evaluate the value of different college degrees. On the one hand, I think that humanists lose the argument when we try to fix the value of a degree in monetary terms. But as a practical matter, the economic environment and the skyrocketing costs of higher education demand we engage the question.

In an article just published for Bloomberg, Peter Orzag, the Obama administration’s recent director of the OMB, notes that we can expect current economic conditions to depress wages for college graduates as much as ten percent after ten years. Orzag makes a pragmatic case that decreased wages imply we should make a college degree less expensive, particularly at public universities already squeezed by tightened state budgets and higher medical costs. But this also implies that students will be shopping more carefully for degrees regardless of the public vs. private university path they choose. Yesterday, Kevin Drum posted a WSJ chart that purports to break down unemployment rates by profession and degree. Drum highlights the top-paying careers, which are heavy with engineers. But unemployment tells a different story. Engineers seem to be about average, with around 5.1% unemployment. Holders of science degrees fare a little worse, with 5.2% unemployed. It turns out the sector you really want to be in is education — only 4% unemployment. (An engineer might argue that this marginal difference in unemployment is compensated by economic value — their median salary is $78,000 versus $43,500 for teachers.)

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