Republican-dominated Washington wants more occupational job training as an alternative to college degrees. But higher education will remain the federal government’s primary job-training system, albeit one experts say could use a reboot.
If you want to know what a society values, look at how it spends its money -- it is hard to imagine a clearer statement of the devaluing of the power and importance of knowledge than the budget proposed last week by President Trump. Many people whose lives are devoted to discovering and applying knowledge of all kinds are no doubt reeling from this extraordinary budget.
As the former principal deputy director and acting director of the National Institutes of Health, I am stunned by the proposed cuts. The NIH serves as the primary funder of biomedical and behavioral research dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans (and, indeed, all humans), and this reduction of support would have an unprecedented negative impact on the health and welfare of this country for decades to come.
I know that many scientists will be motivated by the proposed budget to engage with the political process and wholly fight those devastating proposed cuts. But as a physician and scientist turned president finishing my seventh year at Grinnell College, a liberal arts college in Iowa, I want to add my voice to those who are equally appalled by the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
When I was completing my postgraduate medical training at the University of Pennsylvania, I met with one of my mentors, Dr. Samuel Martin, a renowned leader in 20th-century medicine, to tell him that I had decided to obtain a Ph.D. in the social sciences and to start a career in academic medicine largely motivated by a desire to study and ultimately improve the health status of poor people. I will never forget his immediate response. He told me, “If you really want to get people to care about that, you would be better off writing a great novel on the topic.”
He was not challenging the importance of science in addressing any health problem; rather, he was simply nudging me to consider that a big part of the challenge of addressing the problem was in helping those who are far removed from the lives of poor people to understand the actual lived experience of bad health and to acknowledge the distinct ability of fiction to enable us to encounter experiences other than our own. Perhaps a novel would do for this topic what Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with all its flaws, did for the abolition movement. The proposed Trumpcare replacement of Obamacare suggests that there exists a continued need for such a novel.
Over the past decade, there have been ongoing discussions and concerns about the importance of educating more young people in the STEM fields. Only recently have leaders begun to talk more about supporting and encouraging education in the humanities and social studies -- both as important contributors to our society on their own and also as vital elements in the education of students in the STEM fields. The sciences tell us what we are and how we are as individual humans and as a society; the arts and humanities tell us who we are.
Our students majoring in the sciences see the humanities and social studies as essential parts of their education. They will benefit as scientists from knowing how to write persuasively and think clearly about complex issues and to understand the humanistic implications of their work. It is precisely because of the importance of the humanities to the liberal arts education that we are embarking on one of the largest building projects in the history of Grinnell: a complex that will house and connect the teaching and scholarship of the humanities and social studies to complement our existing center for the sciences.
The humanities also play perhaps the lead role among scholarly disciplines in fostering the imagination. Before any scientist can dive into an important problem or question, she must first be able to imagine a world in which the problem is addressed or the question is answered.
Sometimes great art and literature can help us all to better understand a complicated social problem, like health inequities, and even motivate us to find solutions. I serve on the advisory committee for a wonderful program, Culture of Health: Toward Health Equity, at the National Academy of Medicine. The program, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is grounded in the recognition that health is determined by complex and deeply rooted causal factors that span the full range of dimensions of our society -- biologic, economic, social, educational, cultural. It aims to accelerate the elimination of inequities in health by fostering, expanding and synthesizing the evidence base and promoting its application toward a comprehensive approach to attacking the root causes of health inequities.
A recent planning meeting of the program began with a performance by the accomplished Appalachian storyteller Adam Booth, whose career has been supported by organizations funded by the NEA and NEH. To be honest, I was not sure what to expect, but I ended up deeply moved -- and even fired up -- by a spoken performance that focused on the challenges of a single working mother in simply caring for her family and getting to work one night. During the performance, the audience of mostly health-care professionals and academic researchers was mentally and probably unconsciously checking the boxes for all the ways the character’s choices and decisions would directly affect her health and the health of her family.
As a scientist whose research focused on health inequalities, I doubt that any other presentation could have driven home so effectively the complex web of factors that need to be addressed if we truly want to eliminate health disparities. It framed and motivated the entire rest of the day of more traditional medical- and science-based presentations.
The National Endowments for the Humanities and for the Arts play essential roles in the creative life of this country. The NEA and NEH make especially vital contributions in supporting arts and humanities work in underserved populations, including the poor and veterans. The agencies have funded countless projects that have deeply and permanently enriched our country.
Yet the proposed budget suggests that collective society as represented by the federal government has no need to support the arts and humanities -- that we place no value on a federal role in supporting the exploration of our humanity through these disciplines. To eliminate the modest budgets of those agencies is shameful and reflects a failure to understand the importance of supporting such fields in advancing knowledge and understanding of the human condition.
The federal government must support the entire knowledge enterprise of our country in all its manifestations. The NEA and NEH are necessary and important complements to the funding of the biomedical, social, behavioral and natural sciences and scientists. America needs, perhaps most importantly, them to continue helping all of us imagine that a better world is possible.
Raynard S. Kington is president of Grinnell College.
On March 3, 2017, the Syrian army recaptured Palmyra, the ancient city, archaeological treasure and UNESCO World Heritage Site that had endured destruction and looting at the hands of ISIS. The Syrian government declared the victory “highly significant” for the morale of the army and the Syrian nation. Protecting a country’s history, as the military knew, is as precious as preserving human life. When you destroy heritage, you rob the memories and diminish the heart of a whole people.
On that same day, as it happened, the National Endowment for the Humanities was presenting a program in Washington on the importance of historic conservation and preservation against the threats of war, malice, weather or time. Professor Debra Hess Norris, an art historian, curator and conservator at the University of Delaware and director of the Winterthur Museum’s program in art conservation education, spoke about the remarkable work she and her colleagues and students have undertaken to restore and preserve the world’s artifacts.
Norris’s specialty is the recovery and conservation of documents on paper, whether the Dead Sea scrolls, the Declaration of Independence, damaged photos from early arctic expeditions or family photographs recovered from the Texas floods, Hurricane Katrina or a devastating house fire in rural Ohio where a grandmother and three young boys lost their lives. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and other federal and private philanthropic agencies, Norris has not only saved our heritage but has also trained half of the nation’s photographic preservationists to ensure that heritage endures for future generations.
What is a country without its heritage? That question has been given new urgency now that the White House has released its budget blueprint for fiscal year 2018. This budget sets the total funding of the National Endowment for the Humanities at zero dollars, effectively proposing elimination of the agency. Is that the value we place on our cultural inheritance and its future? Zero? That is the question we must ask ourselves as a nation.
As the Syrian government knows, and as that family in rural Ohio knows, heritage matters. The cultural legacy of a nation is its memory, its heart and its distinct identity. You fight for it; you preserve it; you value it; you invest in it. Every major nation on earth publicly supports its cultural heritage. Without that, how do we maintain our identity as a people? Without our past, how do we know our values or sustain our future?
The National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 states, “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.” Although its budget is small by federal budget standards and relative to most other nations, NEH has delivered on this and consistently fought above its weight. In 2016, NEH received around $148 million, roughly one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal discretionary budget ($1.2 trillion for fiscal year 2016). Yet its impact on the American quality of life, sense of history and cultural heritage has been priceless.
For 50 years, NEH has been national steward of America’s cultural heritage. The NEH has supported the transcription and reprinting of American authors from Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Willa Cather and Ernest Hemingway. The agency has supported the documentation and histories of a broad spectrum of Americans -- from the editing of the personal papers of seven founding fathers to histories of Midwestern farm families, steel workers in Colorado and coal miners in West Virginia.
NEH supports work in museums and libraries in big cities and in small towns. NEH grants have supported President Lincoln’s cottage in the nation’s capital and the Louis Armstrong House in Flushing, N.Y. NEH funded the single largest, most comprehensive digital archive of Sept. 11, and the Digging Into Data program is expanding the tools, resources and impact of humanities and social science researchers in the Information Age. The Dialogues on the Experiences of War program develops important resources about the experience of war to help both veterans and the general public to understand the experience of military service. All across America, NEH provides support that is not available elsewhere, through state, private or other funding sources.
It takes time to create a collective history. It is far easier to lose one -- through fires, floods, terrorism or politics. Saving a cultural heritage and a heart of the people was the importance of the Syrian army’s recapture of ancient Palmyra. History, identity, heritage and memory -- the heart of a whole people -- are at stake as we contemplate the continuation of the NEH.
Francine Berman is the Edward P. Hamilton Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Cathy N. Davidson is Distinguished Professor of English and director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. They are both members of the National Council on the Humanities. The views expressed here are their own.
College students have particular reason to be concerned about the hostility toward the CFPB, given how effective the agency has been in solving their problems with debt. But taxpayers should be alarmed, too.
One of the vulnerable populations receiving special attention at the agency, college students over the past several decades have experienced increasing financial barriers to their educational paths, despite our intent to remove those barriers. To ensure that all qualified students get the education that we want them to pursue, we, the taxpayers, support the federal financial aid programs by spending $128 billion on them in 2015, not to mention spending billions more to fund public institutions in every state.
Despite that support, student debt remains a huge obstacle for graduates. Sixty-nine percent of college students are graduating with an average of $28,950 in debt. This debt is a drag on individual borrowers, who will see a decrease in their lifetime savings as their money is spent paying down educational debt. It has also become a drag on the economy as a whole, as borrowers put off purchasing a home and starting a family until they achieve the firmer footing we hoped they’d have at graduation.
These problems stem from shrinking state budgets for education and grant programs that don’t keep pace. But they are exacerbated when students lose even more money to tricky financial products and predatory lending schemes that are marketed right on campuses.
During the financial crisis, 67 percent of students reported being stopped on campus to be offered a credit card application. Often, these offers were accompanied by freebies -- pizza, a tee shirt or even a chance to get an iPod -- if the student just applied. Unfortunately, the rates paid by those with the worst credit, such as traditional-aged students with their spotty to non-existent credit histories, were upward of 20 percent, plus an additional 23 percent in fees on their balances. Now, the CFPB is the leading watchdog of the campus credit card marketplace, conducting a bi-annual survey of the trends on campuses.
Students, as the captive audience they are, have become targets for higher-priced private loans than what they can get on the open market. In 2007, then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo found that students and families were assuming pricey private loans because their college aid offices, enticed by banks hoping to gain more federal loan customers at the institutions, were pushing them over other products, sometimes even including loan offers in aid awards. CFPB generates an annual report on the private loan marketplace to Congress, highlight the troubling developments.
Also, in 2009 the for-profit chain Corinthian Colleges revealed to investors that it would issue $130 million in private loans for the year to its students, even as it admitted its students wouldn’t be able to repay them. Now, CFPB has specific authority to investigate deceptive lending practices on campuses, which has led to lawsuits against prominent for-profit college chains such as ITT Tech, Bridgepoint, and Corinthian. For instance, it won $480 million in relief for borrowers at Corinthian schools, who were tricked into assuming private loans that carried interest at almost 10 percent.
And recently the agency announced a lawsuit against Navient, the student loan servicing giant formerly known as Sallie Mae, which services 12 million borrowers. The lawsuit alleges that the firm cheated borrowers out of their right to lower monthly payments and lower interest accrual by downplaying enrollment and renewal deadlines for those programs.
These problems are especially outrageous on two fronts. First, they undermine the ability of students to get an education. Second, they devalue the investment that taxpayers have made in our college students, as our financial aid dollars end up flowing away from the students we aim to help, and toward predatory lenders that are breaking the law.
As over 50 student and consumer and educational groups declared in a recent letter to Congress, neither students nor taxpayers should have to tolerate these problems. Now is not the time to render ineffective the agency that is stepping in on our behalf.
Christine Lindstrom is the higher education program director for U.S. Public Interest Research Group student chapters.