The measurable value of a humanities education

Cedar Riener discusses the importance of humanities and arts in higher education. His post is in response to a recent Stanley Fish column on a crisis in the humanities. I’m glad Cedar wrote this post, because when I read Fish’s piece, after I got through the part where he dismisses all of the usual arguments for the humanities, I reread it twice and couldn’t find him presenting any good arguments in favor.

Cedar reviews recent evidence showing benefits of bilingualism and study abroad (making the case for departments of French, Russian, etc.). But importantly, he also discusses the difficulty of measuring outcomes:

Finally, I think a take-home message we should all get from the science of why there is value in the humanities (and the liberal arts in general) is that we should be humble in our drive to tie education to specific and direct goals.  This approach is short-sighted, not just because bilingualism improves creativity and prevents cognitive aging, but because most of the effects of any sort of education are very very hard to measure.  We psychologists can assail education research for not providing clear answers on anything, but at some point we have to conclude that the kind of clear answers we want just don’t exist.

Outcome-oriented policies are only as good as somebody’s ability to list, define, and measure outcomes. A lot of the criticisms of standardized testing center around this issue. As a scientist who does a fair amount of psychometrics in my line of work, I’m pretty optimistic about our ability to construct assessments if we have a good and comprehensive definition of what we want to measure. But the having-a-good-and-comprehensive-definition part is hellaciously hard when it comes to things like the effects of education. If universities keep shifting to “accountability” policies before we can solve this problem, we are in for a rough time.