Liberal Arts PhDs and their economic and social benefits to society

HEPM Journal cover

HEPM Journal cover

When perusing the University World News issue 0089, I came across an article titled “The Economic contribution of PhDs” by Bernard H. Casey (2009).  It mounts a theoretical argument that hypothesizes how the production of PhDs may add broader economic value to a society.  He enumerates 4 major outputs (paraphrased):

  1. earnings of PhD graduates
  2. economic performance of a society
  3. knowledge produced is a social good
  4. PhD skills contribute to organizations and society as a whole (p. 220)

The article’s abstract raises the issue of the value “to employers in particular and to society and the economy at large.”  The abstract could lead one to the following misconceptions about the article:

  • A phrase like “society and the economy”, using “and”, makes them seem separate and equal concepts — social benefit, and economic benefit.
  • Talking about PhDs in general also makes it seem like PhDs, regardless of field of study, may contribute equally to the economy.

However, the title of this article, written by an author from an “institute for employment research,” hints at its continual emphasis on economic outputs–despite the occasional use of the word “social” as if it designated a separate category.  It also argues for the higher value of PhDs in the technical fields.

The “social” benefits in this article seem to be completely dependent on their worth to the economy, and the field of study is also weighed according to its potential for economic benefit.

In the following analysis, Casey’s article is examined critically for the way that it enables or constrains public debate about the good of a Liberal Arts PhD education.  The rhetorical analysis leads to the suggestion of several avenues of argument and research that could be productive for Liberal Arts studies advocates.

This article contains an argument, therefore, for Liberal Arts advocates to learn the following

  • How can the article help us understand the usual arguments and presumptions of many of the public and internal audiences with whom we may engage in discourse?
  • How can Casey’s arguments be refuted or critiqued or subverted? How can it be supplemented by what he omits from consideration?

10 cent Euro coin, 2007.  from Wikimedia.


Are wages a social benefit?

The arguments #1 and 2 (listed above) set the terms of the debate and the emphasis for the article as economic benefit to society.

By starting the article with a focus on “earnings after graduation,” we learn, implicitly, that this is the usual measure among the target audience or the emphasis of the primary voices in the theme of the article.  The opening argument fits within the terms of the debate or discussion so that it is more easily comprehended.

To quantify value, we find this chart quoted early in the article:

2005 PhD Earnings Chart, duplicated in Casey (2009) p. 221

2005 PhD Earnings Chart, duplicated in Casey (2009) p. 221

However, this is not the main point announced by the article’s title, “The economic contribution of PhDs.”  How is this a “contribution” to society if it accrues to the individual?

How was this argument made?  How did it insert the supposition that economic gain is a social good?

As mentioned, the first argument reinforces selected commonplace presumptions and values by giving them prominence.  It therefore rests most powerfully on an enthymeme (rhetorical syllogism, from Aristotle’s Rhetoric) that omits stating the most powerful, underlying claim.  The complete syllogism of Casey’s first argument is:

  • A benefit to an individual is a benefit to society (general premise)
  • PhDs bring economic benefits to individuals (specific premise)
  • PhDs are of benefit to society. (conclusion)

An enthymeme is powerful rhetorically because it rests on one or more of the above parts of an argument being supplied by the audience, rather than explicitly argued by the rhetor.  The first argument is an enthymeme that reinforces or “invokes” the common perceptions of the target audience.

Accordingly, Casey states at the outset of his section,

Much of the discussion of the value of educational qualifications concentrates upon the premium the qualification offers to the individual that possesses it. (220)

The argument rests on the specific or minor premise mentioned above. The major premise is what “basic economic theory” teaches us about wages — that PhD graduates’ wages they are a measure that generally “reflect[s] marginal productivity” (p. 221) and high-wage workers therefore lead to overall “economic growth” (p. 222), a benefit to others beyond the individual (despite the exceptions of Liberal Arts graduates.)

In this way, wages of graduates has been an argument for “the [overall] economic contribution of PhDs.”  If individuals gain money, it is symbolic of their increased economic value and productivity; also, individuals and their employers are part of society and so “we” gain money (and others do benefit through their consumer spending and taxes).

In the most effective rhetorical organization, the first argument is not the weakest, but a strong point.  As Cicero states, “the expectations of the audience should be met with all possible expedition … let the arguments of most weight be put foremost” (De Oratore 2. LXXVII).  Cicero chides people who put their weakest point first.

This first argument is the weakest point in Casey’s article.  Why is it here then?  In fact, as he goes on to the second point, he admits that “private returns . . . . are not an argument for public support for PhD production . . . . it is insufficient to argue that a more highly qualified labour force contributes to economic growth.” (p. 222)

In fact, it is such a weak argument for the economic “contribution” of PhDs that it builds strength for his opponents who would say that PhDs do not “contribute” beyond the individual.

Individual earnings is the argument people use who wish to lower the economic investment of the state and to raise tuition fees in certain fields.  Casey acknowledges this:

“the fact that the returns to the investment in the acquisition of the qualification flow primarily to the individual is reason for the state to limit the financial resources it provides. If it were to contribute, it would merely be using revenue collected from all to enhance the earning power of some” (p. 220).

If the Liberal Arts PhDs are likely to be earning less than other fields after graduation, are they therefore less subject to a rise in tuition fees ?

Many students in the Liberal Arts would benefit from the argument for lower tuition fees in the Liberal Arts during graduate studies.  However, if differential fees across fields were established at the graduate level, it would only serve to decrease the relative amount of resources and status accorded to Liberal Arts fields within the university system, and this would further reduce the number of PhD supervisors and teachers and therefore graduate students in these fields.

If society were to truly subsidize Liberal Arts graduate education in a way that accorded it value, it should not be through lowering the tuition (and thus lowering the social value of the degree), but through increased bursaries and funding to these fields so that students could afford the “sacrifice” of studying for a PhD in the Liberal Arts.

Liberal Arts

Liberal Arts

Lesson 1: The failure of the “wages” argument

A major lesson can be learned from this argument — Casey is right about its insufficiency within his own paper, and the way it undermines public support for the broader contributions of PhDs.

  • advocates who “sell” the value of a degree to individuals (university program recruitment) usually highlight the economic gain to individuals.
  • the argument that works with individuals (you will earn more) is likely to backfire with society in general (why are we paying to subsidize the education of John or Susan if it is about them earning more?).  It leads to higher tuition and lower government funding.
  • It is inconsistent and unethical to argue one thing to students and another to society when the messages seem to contradict each other.  Ultimately these audiences blend together, and so a consistently noble and social aim should be expressed, in which individual gain is secondary or subordinate.
  • The altruistic argument may not be as attractive to all prospective students, but it may appeal to the higher motives of the best students.  Thus an argument like this may persuade future PhD graduates, not just society, to consider the social duties and contributions of a PhD degree.
  • In a well-ordered society, individual benefit generally follows social benefit. Arguments for funding the PhD degree and supporting PhD students during their studies should therefore work in the other direction: its social benefits first, rather than individual benefits first (as Cicero would point out).

To bring the lesson to Liberal Arts advocates, it is less worthwhile to argue for the individual economic benefits of the degree — not merely because the earning potential is lower in the Liberal Arts.

Individual earnings is not an argument whose logic is likely to lead to the public funding of PhD level education and doctoral universities, regardless of the PhD field of study.

10 cent Euro coin, 2007.  from Wikimedia.


Do Liberal Arts PhDs receive compensation for lower wages?

It is worthwhile to see how the non-monetary, social value of a Liberal Arts PhD is tucked into a corner of Casey’s first argument on wages.

Casey makes indirect, minor concessions to individual non-monetary gain of PhDs in order to buoy up the lower numbers on the chart, which are generally in the areas of the Liberal Arts degrees.

In discussing the “PhDs in social sciences, arts, languages and education,” he notes that most in this category are employed in the education sectors and, in particular, in the higher education sector” (p. 221) which regulates wages based on government financing rather than market forces.

The social benefits of Liberal Arts degrees is argued from the mouths of employers:

Of course, employers in education might argue that they offer higher non-monetary benefits, such as a high level of task autonomy, that compensate, at least in part, for the low level of the monetary reward they receive. (p. 221)

He wisely places this in the mouths of employers because the idea of “task autonomy” as a non-monetary benefit opens a can of worms and is largely an indefensible argument if one explores it more fully.

In what way is “task autonomy,” or freedom, something that “compensates” for lower wages?

A compensation implies there is some commensurability of value that enables exchange of one for the other. Let us test this concept.

  • Can task autonomy effectively be purchased by an employee by giving up wage equity?
  • Even within a company or educational institution, does freedom within one’s employment tasks necessarily create a monetary cost to the employer?

If “task autonomy” were truly a compensation for “low monetary reward” as a broader social principle, it would mean that those who earn more money within the organization have less freedom and those who earn less money have more freedom.

This is clearly not the case, especially within universities, since low wages often entails low status and less task autonomy as well as more hours of labor or harder work than one’s peers (larger classes to teach, less time for research, less time for involvement in institutional leadership/governance).  Also, if this principle were true, the most highly paid employees in the university would have the least amount of task autonomy.  This is clearly not the case: highly paid science and technology researchers, as well as administrators, are encouraged to be innovative and creative, and they have more time and energy (as well as social capital) to influence the policies of the university than do liberal arts professors.

In what way, then, does a Liberal Arts professor have more “task autonomy” than an engineering or medicine PhD graduate either within or outside of the education sector?

Is it perhaps the mere fact that one has “autonomously” chosen to study the Liberal Arts knowing in advance that the financial incentives are (perhaps unjustly) lower?

Engineering graduates may have also made the “autonomous” choice to study engineering–no one is forcing them to choose their field.  It requires a degree of intellectual autonomy and motivation to serve in ANY field as an intellectual.

Liberal Arts

Liberal Arts

Lesson 2:  The failure of “task autonomy” as compensation

It is not easy to argue convincingly that a higher level of “task autonomy” has a natural, inherent or causal inverse relationship to lower wages.   It is probably not true.

However Liberal Arts PhDs may have more task autonomy for other reasons.  Their research and teaching allows for more individual academic freedom because it is less often conducted in the context of collaboration and is not as dependent on physical technologies such as scientific lab equipment and experimental materials.

One would think that the lower technological and management costs of advanced Liberal Arts research and teaching would be an argument for its relative efficiency and thus increased wages, if all other factors were equal.  … But other factors are not equal because of the perception of social value.  Therefore we return to arguments of broad social value being the best and highest route for Liberal Arts advocacy.

If Liberal Arts PhDs produce social goods, for example, in the same way that a medical surgeon produces the social good of health, then they should receive commensurate wages.   If they do not, no degree of increased “task autonomy” for the English Professor is a just compensation for the wage gap between her and her colleague, the Medical Professor.

While it is not “compensation,” task autonomy may be a “consolation” for a small to moderate degree of wage inequity — if the individuals concerned value autonomy and are at least minimally satisfied with their wage.  A consolation does not remove the harm caused by the wage inequity.

Clearly, not enough argument is occurring to reduce the wage equity issue between PhD graduates in different professions, likely because many people believe that “market forces” should drive wages, not social value.

But if market forces were enough to sustain PhD education, then why is Casey’s article making the argument for social value?  Obviously policy and public opinion is also a considerable factor.

Liberal Arts advocates with doctorates in the Liberal arts–those who should have the knowledge and skills capable of making these arguments of social value–may not actually have the “task autonomy” needed to allow them to spend their time on this line of research and publication.

10 cent Euro coin, 2007.  from Wikimedia.


The public good of contributing to the economy

We have already discussed the way in which earnings validates of PhD degrees outside of the Liberal Arts and does nothing to raise the value of Liberal Arts fields, and in fact does harm to PhD education in these areas.

However, by means of his weak opening argument about wages, Casey lays out the need to argue more explicitly and fully for the defense of the major premise.

Casey supports the “traditional” economic principles he cites even if he feels wages are not sufficient proof of social value, or “public good”.  Accordingly, item #2 continues to argue about “public good” in an economically reductive manner that minimizes the value of the Liberal Arts.  We are told in this section that

“The nature of the public good falls into two parts.  First, the production of PhDs is an integral part of the production of basic research — itself a public good from which all benefit. Second, the holders of PhDs, when they are employed, generate production externalities — in other words, their having a PhD raises not only their own productivity but also productivity of those without a PhD alongside whom they work.  A third externality, such as that consequential upon PhD holders enhancing the social milieu or producing ‘better’ children, is (yet) more difficult to measure and is not discussed here.” (p. 222)

In the paragraph above, he disqualifies the third valuable “externality” from consideration because of an obvious bias towards what is quantifiable and measurable.

Casey’s second point focuses on “productivity” of employees, whether it operates through peer pressure, competition for excellence, and/or mentorship.  Its ends are purely economic.

The first point holds some promise because of its general terms.  However, when Casey discusses the first point in the next paragraph, we see that the type of  “basic research” discussed seems to be research aimed at growth in “the state of technology” of a society; its “technical progress.”

Therefore the argument is also reduced to economic terms, as the final sentence of the section reveals:

The argument here revolves around the production of understanding and knowledge and its transmission and application into the production of goods and services. (223)

By extension, the value of the Liberal Arts as “basic research” is only granted if it is transmitted and applied to produce goods and services.  By focusing on technological knowledge production and peer competition and influence, Casey omits mention of any ways in which Liberal Arts research and education produces economic goods and services to society at large.

Liberal Arts

Liberal Arts

Lesson 3: The economic goods and services of Liberal Arts PhDs

Liberal Arts goods and services are never enumerated in this article which focuses instead on “technology,” but the goods and services produced by Liberal Arts knowledge may include:

  • Books, television programs and other communication on Liberal Arts topics (i.e. historical documentaries) that people pay money to consume
  • Courses of study in the Liberal arts areas that students pay tuition to take out of interest
  • Fine arts products (music, visual arts) that can be purchased and displayed or experienced
  • Liberal arts knowledge that enables “productivity” in businesses — knowledge about language, communication, culture, psychology, social interaction that is used when employees interact with one another and with customers and the public.

Regardless of the economic benefits that can be gained for the Liberal Arts by arguing in this fashion, at its core the argument is philosophically too “reductive” to grant Liberal Arts knowledge value to society outside of economic equations.

10 cent Euro coin, 2007.  from Wikimedia.


The value of PhD knowledge and skills

Of the arguments among the 4 major points of this article, the first two are economically reductive.  Only the final two seem to have the potential to touch on the broader social value of PhD knowledge and skills:

  1. earnings of PhD graduates
  2. economic performance of a society
  3. knowledge produced is a social good
  4. PhD skills contribute to organizations and society as a whole

Let us examine the rhetoric to discover how the public good of “knowledge” is defined.

Within the section titled “What is the role of PhD production in the generation of knowledge and understanding?” here is the opening paragraph:

Education might have a role in generating the externalities [benefits]upon whose existence the validity of endogenous growth theory [growth from within a society] provides. It might contribute to the provision of the public good of knowledge that can be embodied in human and physical capital. In short, better people produce better ideas and better ideas produce better machines and better ways to use them.  Moreover, there might even be inter-temporal spillovers, so that the current pool of ideas benefits not only existing people, in that it enhances their productivity, but also future generations.

Only the “externalities” and “spillovers” — the surplus gain or profit produced by an enterprise (such as PhD production) beyond individual or corporate gain — justifies social investment through taxation and thus to government funding of higher education graduate programs.  “It is only if spillovers exist that subsidy is justified” (223).

The unfounded presumption of this argument is that externalities and spillover only exist if they “can be embodied in human and physical capital,” if the end results of ideas is to “produce better machines and better ways to use them.”

This argument, therefore, which could potentially lead to an expression of the “public good of knowledge” and “better ideas” that Liberal Arts education produces, is once again subverted by economic reductionism.

Secondly, even the “skill” of communication becomes subject to technical and economic reduction.  The author cites Jackson (1997) saying the following:

A critical skill in many settings was the ability [of PhDs] to communicate effectively with non-specialists. This was just as true for [employers] recruiting people for their specialist knowledge as for those looking for more generic skills. Several of the employers … stressed the importance of being able to explain complex information or specialised research findings to non-specialists as a critical skill.  (as quoted by Casey, p. 225)

This quotation, while granting value to “communication” relegates it to a “skill” which is subordinate to “specialist knowledge” about things other than communication itself.  A PhD in Communication, Languages, and Literature, yields knowledge about communication and not necessarily communication skills, and therefore does not even enter this process unless the employer seeks specialist knowledge about communication itself.

It is presumed that sufficient skills in communication can be gained by specialist researchers without having explicit knowledge or advanced training in communication.  The value of communication knowledge (not just skills obtained in the process of PhD education) is therefore minimized.

The discussion of this article then flows into the issue of patents, which might reduce the flow of knowledge back to society.  “Science parks” are brought up as a way of circulating the products of specialized knowledge wider than industry.  The bias is obvious:  Casey does not talk about “Arts festivals” as means of disseminating arts knowledge wider than academic journals and books.  The article concludes with areas for further research: “How spillovers occur, and how they can be quantified” (p. 226), which has little to do with the traditional aims of liberal arts inquiry, which are more qualitative in nature.

Liberal Arts

Liberal Arts

Lesson #4: Future areas of research for Liberal Arts advocates

In response, I would like to provide some food for thought about how Liberal Arts researchers could produce knowledge of the ways in which Society benefits directly from Social knowledge without translation to economic gain:

  • How do Liberal Arts degrees enable people to more deeply value and understand human life and society?  What further “basic knowledge” about humanity and society’s goods is produced by PhD level research?
  • What are the outcomes of Liberal Arts degrees in the preservation of human knowledge of society, history, culture, and language? (the protection of our cultural and intellectual resources and heritage)
  • What are the outcomes of advanced Liberal Arts education (PhDs) in promoting social justice and reducing criminal and uncivil behavior in those who obtain PhDs?
  • In which sectors of society is knowledge of the Liberal Arts (not just “skills” like communication) necessary for successful performance of one’s duties, whether one is performing paid or unpaid labor?
  • How does advanced Liberal Arts education enhance the general social milieu of a society, enabling peace, tolerance, dialogue, collective decision making?
  • How do PhD holders employed in Higher Education institutions contribute more widely to the above social benefits through all of their employment duties:
  1. through the education of those who pursue higher education at any level
  2. through their continuing research and publication
  3. through their university leadership services
  4. through their public service and public communication as professors in the Liberal Arts

These outcomes could be qualitatively explored and argued through social research methods, theoretical arguments, and narratives.  They need not be quantifiably measured in order to be valid benefits.

10 cent Euro coin, 2007.  from Wikimedia.


Economic reductionism

Naturally an argument about an “economic contribution” will talk about government funding, wages, taxes, capital investment and the reduction of costs in relation to profit.  To expect such an argument to argue for social goods would be to twist it away from its intended purpose and scope.

In the mean time, within an economic article, one can often find arguments and presumptions about social factors.

These sub-arguments and presumptions, outlined above, can either enhance, interconnect with, and highlight the intrinsic value of social goods, or do the contrary — minimize, bracket, or ignore social goods that are not inherently economic.

It is not necessarily the case that economic arguments and transactions produce social harm.   The contrary is also true: purely social gains do not necessarily cause economic harm.   Society and economy can and should be mutually reinforcing.

However, when economic arguments are “reductive” in that they “reduce” all value to the common denominator of economic units, they may seem to erase, minimize or externalize the value accorded to non-economic units and transactions for their own sake.

Taken to its extreme, within economic reductionism, the value of a human life becomes quantifiable based on an individual’s potential or real ability to earn money and spend money and to make firms more productive and to create goods and services that can be sold for profit.

Even when limiting the scope of harm to higher education, the article may cause harm by perpetuating, and even increasing, the inequality and injustice that exists when technical and professional degrees are valued more highly than Liberal Arts degrees.  This argument would harm by reducing the availability and quality of these degrees and thus their impact on society.

I would like to point out the two unfortunate features of this article that cause harm to society in general and to Liberal Arts PhD education in particular:

  • The definition of a “social” benefit is not granted an independent status in the article.  The article seems to presume that an economic gain is a “contribution” to society (a “social gain”) if it “spills over” to the “external” social sphere beyond individual lives and corporations.  However, without discussing how the spillover will produce social goods (justice, equity, human understanding, cooperation, etc.), it is uncertain that economic “spillover” and “externalities” will result in public good.  By means of subordinating social qualities to economic quantities, and avoiding the acknowledgment that a social good cannot be defined and measured by economic means alone, we see the problem of the subordination or collapse of the social sphere within the economic.
  • As an important sub-area of human knowledge and skill, “social” knowledge and skill (such as communication) is not valued for its own sake in the article.  It is valued only insofar as it contributes to industrial production and technological innovation that produces economic gain.  In particular, the production of PhDs in the Arts and Social Sciences areas is seen to be of less “social” value because of its lower economic return to society through technology commercialization and supply chain management.  It is utterly ironic that PhD knowledge in general and  “social” knowledge in particular has no “social” value without being translated into economic form where it can be “accounted for,” but this article makes it appear so.

Both arguments can produce harm to advanced study in the Liberal Arts, the first by an intellectually imperialistic move of reframing the public good as a field that fits within economic inquiry, and the second by the enslavement or subordination of social knowledge and skills to technological and economic forms of knowing and doing.

Liberal Arts

Liberal Arts

Lesson #5: avoiding liberal arts reductionism

An obvious challenge for Liberal Arts advocates is to avoid falling into the same trap of “reductionism” within the social sphere — a “noneconomic reductionism. ”  This point is addressed at the end of my article.   Not only is this the avoidance of reductionism rhetorically the more ethical and effective route (not to fall into the same trap as your rhetorical opponent) but it is also based on the purpose of an “advocate” — if Liberal Arts advocates cannot argue for the direct and indirect economic benefits of their fields of study as well as the non-economic benefits, they cut off themselves and their benefactors from equitable and reasonable economic sponsorship.

In order to avoid falling into the same blind tunnel this article has, one must take care to avoid the charge of “liberal arts reductionism” or “social reductionism” which would claim that social benefits have no relationship to economic value.

This tendency is likely what got the Liberal Arts into this predicament in the first place, where more argumentation is occurring regarding the economic value of PhDs than their social value.  Unsurprisingly, with the weight of rhetoric on the economic side, the Liberal Arts are shrinking while technology and science and professional fields are growing.

One must try to show that each of the non-monetary social goods listed above do not “contradict” economic goods, that they are not blind to economic factors, and that they are activities and knowledge worthy of being supported by society economically.

In summary,

  • Lesson #1: instead of arguing for the benefit of increased wages to PhDs, argue for the social duty and contribution to society at large.  The inverse is also true.  Instead of arguing for the benefit of individual “critical thinking” skills and humanistic knowledge, argue for the way in which a PhD in the Liberal Arts brings greater economic equity and value to other individuals and society as a whole.
  • Lesson #2: do not argue that social aspects of a job such as “task autonomy” can compensate for lower economic value.  The inverse is also true.  Do not argue that increased wages can compensate for the lower social/ethical value of one’s education and work.
  • Lesson # 3: Point out the ways in which advanced education and research in the Liberal Arts produces goods and services of economic value.  However, be sure to demonstrate that this is only one small aspect of the argument for the social value of the Liberal Arts.
  • Lesson # 4a: It can be argued that the knowledge inherent in Liberal Arts fields is of equal value to society as Engineering and Business, and therefore of equal value as fields of knowledge worthy of PhD study.  The Liberal Arts have an ancient pedigree and have not been made obsolete by the technological and scientific progress of the past few centuries.
  • Lesson #4b: Point out that the (soft) “skills” needed for technological and scientific and economic progress in fact belong to the liberal arts by nature, and although they can be learned by experience and observation, they are best understood and taught through liberal arts methods and disciplines.  At the same time one must also argue against the subordination of skill to knowledge.  This has implications for the subordination of skills (courses and applied research) to knowledge/theory within the Liberal Arts.
  • Lesson #5a: avoid reductivism.  By reducing your opponent’s values to a subset of your own, you argue yourself and your field out of the value accorded to practices within their sphere.
  • Lesson #5b: Avoid presuming the direct inverse of the general premise of “traditional economic theory” — the assumption that “social goods to the individual and society are inherently providers of economic goods to the public.”  Instead, be honest and upfront that social activities, skills and knowledge most directly produce social outcomes and that there is nothing to be ashamed about this fact.  But in arguing, do not presume that PhD education and research in the Liberal Arts has no need of economic support.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s