Debunking Charlie Kirk on the uselessness of the humanities

I attended a Turning Point USA event on April 3 at the University of Georgia featuring Charlie Kirk, TP’s founder and executive director. As part of his “Hard Truths,” tour, Kirk made several statements about his usual topics: socialism, guns, and of course higher education. I want to address a few of those about higher ed here.

First, Cas Mudde, a UGA professor and Guardian columnist, also covered the event. He fact checks a claim Kirk made about the most popular assigned reading on syllabi:

To back his claims up, [Kirk] states that Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto is the most assigned book in college. This is a popular claim among right-wing media, based on outdated results from the highly problematic Open Syllabus Project. A more recent count has the writing guide The Elements of Style as the most assigned text, with The Communist Manifesto coming third, behind Plato’s Republic. Interestingly, Marx did not even make the top 10 among the so maligned Ivy League schools, which do have Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, a favorite among conservatives and radical right alike, as the second most assigned book!

Kirk said other things about higher education. I am quoting from notes so if I am imprecise, excuse me.

Humanities Not Cited

First, Kirk said, as Mudde noted, that students — specifically engineering majors — take irrelevant courses. Kirk says that humanities courses and courses generally not in the realm of a specific STEM degree are examples. He qualifies this with “some are not, but most are useless,” though he does not name those useful courses. He then cites a stat he will tweet a few days later:

In a following tweet, Kirk provides this as a source:

First, the paper itself argues a rise in broader citations for STEM areas. From its abstract: “All these measures converge and show that, contrary to what was reported by Evans, the dispersion of citations is actually increasing.” The Evans article it rebukes makes this claim: “as more journal issues came online, the articles referenced tended to be more recent, fewer journals and articles were cited, and more of those citations were to fewer journals and articles.”

Kirk’s claim of 80% seems to come from this paragraph: In the HUM arena, “an extremely small percentage of papers account for the majority of citations. Indeed, in 2005, 0.5% of papers accounted for 20% of citations, 2.6% for 50% of citations and 7.2% of papers for 80% of citations received. Apart from a small “bump” in the data, which can very likely be attributed to the poor quality of the data in HUM at the beginning of the Eighties, no trend can be discerned. The extremely skewed nature of the data in HUM, again, suggests that extreme caution should be applied in using journal-based bibliometric data for the evaluation of research in HUM.”

And this caution is warranted because, as the article notes, humanities scholars quote books more than articles in journals. In regard to tenure and promotion, monographs or single-authored books are the standard for the humanities whereas in the STEM areas, articles are. And in that area, articles usually have many authors.

Vox fact-checked a similar stat: Is 98% of research in humanities and 75% in social science never cited again? Its answer: “A new book by a former Harvard president seems like it should be a credible source of information on this topic, but the shocking statistic turns out to be a rehash of a 1991 study of publications from 1984 that suffers from extreme methodological flaws — and that refuses to go away…”

The flaw: “But the data included all items published in journals, not just research. It also counted obituaries, letters to the editor, and meeting minutes, as David Pendlebury, a researcher at ISI, pointed out in a 1991 letter to the editor of Science critiquing the study.”

Then there is the apples-to-apples comparison Kirk implies here between STEM and humanities in regard to citations. Here is a good explanation as to why it is not apples to apples:

This article has shown that the problem when using citation analysis on humanistic disciplines is not only a technical one associated with differences in publication practices, but also has to do with differences in how and why you cite. References in fields like philosophy, art, or literature are often integrated in the text; frequently, whole names and less factlike hedging are used. They serve the purpose of building the context in which the research and the researcher exist, as well as the ‘traditional’ task of acknowledging previous research. Accordingly, references in the humanities are more integrated in the text and therefore more ambiguous when separated from their context.

Here is a study that suggests, opposed to STEM fields, humanities more often cite research much older. It argues that “60% of cited references in the A&H journals in our study set are new, i.e., published after 1995.”

Enlightenment Year

Kirk also suggests that engineering (or more broadly STEM majors) students are forced to take an “enlightenment year” filled with humanities classes.

Is that accurate?

Here is the plan of study for a bachelor’s in civil engineering at UGA.

As you can see, like all students who don’t test out through Advanced Placement, future civil engineers take ENGL 1101 and 1102, the two-semester sequence known as First Year Composition. The “First Year Odyssey” course is not a humanities course but “seminars… designed to introduce you to the academic life of the University. These seminars will allow you to engage with faculty and other first-year students in a small class environment to learn about the unique academic culture the University offers.” They are one-credit courses, a kind of extended orientation.

One could categorize “Intro to Public Speaking” as a non-STEM course, but Communications is allied more with social sciences than humanities.

As for the 6 hours of non-STEM “social science” electives, you can see some of the classes that are options here: geography, political science, economics, history, and psychology.

As for the 9 hours of “world language and culture” electives, you can see some of those here: any foreign language.

There is a high chance with this plan of study — mirrored in other engineering fields — students at UGA will have to take only three true “humanities” courses: basic writing (x2) and basic speech communication. That is not even a full load for one semester. Not an “enlightenment year.”

At my school, which is more of a traditional “liberal arts” school and does not have an engineering degree but a transfer program to Georgia Tech, there are more humanities classes one is asked to take. See here.

Voluntary Humanities

This leads me to Kirk’s last claim: if colleges made humanities classes “voluntary” and therefore responsive to the “free market” of student choice, then few if any would take them. Or those who would, would be the ones who wanted to.

Kirk’s related claim — that these “useless” courses pay for “worthless professors’ jobs” —adds to the picture. [For the record, I teach three sections of First Year Composition and one course in our professional writing major each semester. The English department I teach is in the largest department at my school, and FYC is its biggest course outlay. Most of my colleagues teach sections of FYC.]

First, let me say that Kirk is most likely unaware that abolishing the mandatory requirement of First Year Composition has long been a debate in my field. This from a 1997 article: “Calls to abolish first-year writing courses on theoretical and pragmatic grounds by highly regarded teachers and researchers within the field of Rhetoric and Composition Studies are, therefore, likely to give credibility and further impetus to administrators
or university committees who are seeking to radically change or to eliminate first-year composition instruction.”

There is not a lot of studies on effects, but one is a key citation: the 1986 abolishing of FYC at SUNY-Albany, described by Lil Brannon here. But writing was not eliminated but dispersed into writing-intensive literature courses, writing-in-discipline courses, and other places. The result: more than 3/4 of the students take more than two “traditional” two writing-intensive courses. And the English major had to turn students away!

Second, let me concede that humanities programs, professors, and its associated backers in the public arena have done a very poor job making the case for the value of humanities for non-majors. It is a perennial debate, one Kirk is only skimming.

Here is a succinct argument for the value of First Year Composition from 2012: “Yet the first-year writing course represents one of the few places in the academic curriculum, in some institutions the only place, where students learn the basics of argument, or how to make a claim, provide evidence, and consider alternative points of view. Argument is the currency of academic discourse, and learning to argue is a necessary skill if students are to succeed in their college careers. Yet the process of constructing arguments also engages students, inevitably and inescapably, in questions of ethics, values, and virtues.”

As for the value of humanities courses in general, I use Kirk as my example. Despite his rhetorical fallacies and problems with facts, Kirk clearly is well-spoken, a reader of much material (it seems), and able to synthesize information and analyze different sources. He engages well with the “other side” and knows rhetorical tactics.

And one should note that he has taken some college courses but does not have a degree, albeit he was accepted at Baylor. He was “discovered” by his financial backers in high school. He describes taking an AP economics course in his biography. All in all, he clearly had an exceptional high school education and has the internal motivation to succeed in the academy. [Kirk took some classes at Harper College, a community college in Illinois. It is not known what classes he took.]

That said, with a heavy dose of irony, Kirk makes clear he doesn’t want those UGA students in the crowd to get the education he was given at his public high school. I say Kirk’s education was exceptional because I doubt the “average” high school graduate — accepted into any college — could do what he does. I say this as a college professor and former high school teacher.

With that in mind, one must ask two important questions: 1) If Kirk is so interested in politics, history, economics, and rhetoric, why aren’t the engineering students? And 2) Why doesn’t Kirk want them interested, if indeed they are his fellow citizens and perhaps future backers and donors for Turning Point? Why does he want to limit their education to “major only” classes?

To be fair, Kirk suggests that if these students have an interest, they should read on their own. But why doesn’t he want anyone teaching these students? To say it simply, for Kirk, diminishing college diminishes the elite. Diminishing professors diminishes the “left.” And diminishing higher ed diminishes “liberals.”

But Kirk, despite these “liberal indoctrination” claims, oddly defines education as “merely getting information from a book” (however well-written) and ill-defines teaching as the assigning of reading. I would submit no engineering professor would define it that way. Why does Kirk think so little of good teaching if he is a product of one? Why did a room full of 200 UGA students applaud when Kirk told them many of the courses they were taking were “useless?”

To paraphrase one person Kirk reads, Dennis Prager, the smaller the education, the smaller the citizen. Kirk is producing people who applaud a lack of education.

Kirk often points out that we ask teens where are they going to college, not why. Aside from being a ridiculous generalization, it is also wrong. We ask and the answer that Kirk implies is key here: to get a job.

But I would submit that why we go to college has broaden in the last generation or two. We have put enormous pressure on students to choose a major early on, to know what they want to do with their lives from Day One. Yet their education has not prepared them for such a decision. And their education has not prepared them for college.

And so college has become for many a place and time to discover what one does not know, both in education and in the self.

According to federal data reported on in Inside Higher Ed, “almost a third of first-time college students choose a major and then change it at least once within three years, and students who started out in mathematics and the natural sciences are likelier than others to switch fields.”

Furthermore, “students who started out studying math were likeliest of all [to switch majors]: 52 percent of those who initially declared as math majors ended up majoring in something else, followed by 40 percent of those in the natural sciences, 37 percent in education, 36 percent in humanities disciplines and 32 percent in engineering and general studies…”

And introductory or survey courses are then really important, according to this 2013 study:

According to a College Student Journal survey of more than 800 students who were asked to elaborate on their career decision-making process, factors that played a role included a general interest the student had in the subject he or she chose; family and peer influence; and assumptions about introductory courses, potential job characteristics, and characteristics of the major (Beggs, Bantham, & Taylor, 2008, p. 382). While these may be valid factors to a degree, the study ultimately implied that students are choosing a major based on influence and assumption rather than through an understanding of their own personal goals and values.

The 2013 study goes on: “In contrast with the evidence that first-year students are most likely making uninformed choices when determining a major, the common four-year curriculum path colleges and universities use assumes that students enter college prepared to make a decision regarding major and, ultimately, career path. Unfortunately, the reality is that students are most likely not developmentally prepared to do so.”

Of all the arguments for the usefulness and value of humanities courses for all students, the best argument I have in response to Kirk’s debasement of them is that they force us to face our humanity. We get to know ourselves a little bit better. And we “pick up” some skills for developing, presenting, and communicating that humanity with other citizens. We do need more of all types of vocations in our world, to paraphrase a line from Kirk. And we need college to give us an education for that world and for those vocations.

Professor of Rhetoric at University of North Georgia. On Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist. My book “Speaking of Evil”