On value

Stepwell (Edward Burtynsky)

The president of the University of Windsor, Alan Wildeman, wrote an op-ed stating the case for a liberal arts education, sending a warning that we ignore the humanities at our peril. Even though I’m trained as an engineer, I fully agree with this sentiment. However, I found that unlike many prominent journalists who have also recently defended the liberal arts (for example, see Fareed Zakaria’s “In Defense of a Liberal Education”, Nicholas Kristof’s “Starving for Wisdom” and Frank Bruni’s “College’s Priceless Value”), Wildeman falls prey to the very type of reductionist mindset that a liberal arts education supposedly seeks to overcome: that of unfettered, neoliberal, free-market capitalism. This betrayal of the very values he seeks to defend is unfortunate and exasperating, particularly since he is by no means alone. 

The first justification Wildeman uses to support his claims is that the liberal arts and humanities are a “great economic investment”. He then cites a few studies which compare the annual salaries of liberal arts grads and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) grads. That’s fine, and I fully understand why he would make such a comparison. But it completely misses the point of a liberal education. It also only serves to perpetuate the myth that for anything to be valuable, it must be reducible in terms of its utility or commercial value. It completely ignores the existence of inherent or intrinsic value, the idea that it’s possible for something to be valuable in and of itself. Using a justification from utility, therefore, necessarily leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that if the humanities were to not provide “economic returns” (which is the reality in many cases), then they would not be valuable. In such a case, would he then suggest that it be abandoned in favour of more lucrative pursuits? I would hope not.

I also see analogies with many of the arguments made in favour of environmental sustainability. “Ecosystem services”, for example, quantifies the many goods and services that natural systems provide us for free (e.g. stormwater management, flood protection, pollination, etc.) in terms of their financial value. The concept of “biodiversity offsetting” sometimes requires that biodiversity be quantified in terms of its economic value. These can be very useful metrics if used in the proper context and can serve many useful purposes. But if the living world is quantified and reduced in only this way, doesn’t it diminish its essential or ultimate value? I think so. Biodiversity and natural systems have value beyond just the monetary. It may well take a degree in philosophy for people to understand that its possible for the value of nature to lie beyond the needs and wants of one particular species (ours); there are, after all, millions of species other than Homo sapiens. (Gasp!)

The British writer and environmentalist George Monbiot said it best (no surprise), when he planted his foot firmly in the ground and proclaimed that the reason why we fight for the living world is not because of our bank account but because of love:

“I have asked meetings of green-minded people to raise their hands if they became defenders of nature because they were worried about the state of their bank accounts. Never has one hand appeared. Yet I see the same people base their appeal to others on the argument that they will lose money if we don’t protect the natural world.

Such claims are factual, but they are also dishonest: we pretend that this is what animates us, when in most cases it does not. The reality is that we care because we love. Nature appealed to our hearts, when we were children, long before it appealed to our heads, let alone our pockets. Yet we seem to believe we can persuade people to change their lives through the cold, mechanical power of reason, supported by statistics.”

The reason why we should care about the natural environment lies outside the goods and services these ecosystems provide us or their perceived financial value.

There are some scientists (primarily those of the natural sciences), however, who do get it. And it is here, ironically, that I think people like Mr. Wildeman could take a page out of their playbook to justify the value of the liberal arts. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins once remarked that “justifying space exploration because we get non-stick frying pans is like justifying music because it is good exercise for the violinist’s right arm.”

Both the natural sciences and the humanities – from philosophy to art to literature – have intrinsic value, much like the natural world itself. They do not have to be justified as a means to an end; they are ends in their own right.