Has Quantification Seduced Higher Education?

An emphasis on quantitative metrics threatens the values of the liberal arts.
By Eric Scarffe and Katherine Valde

In 2015, then presidential candidate Marco Rubio quipped that America needs “more welders and less philosophers.” These comments led to a flurry of fact-checking, with Michael Stratford noting in Inside Higher Ed that, contrary to Rubio’s assertion, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, philosophers do, in fact, make more on average than welders. Of course, since 2015 Rubio has amended his position—claiming in a 2018 Facebook post that he now thinks we need both “vocational training for workers & philosophers to make sense of the world.” This article argues that, inadvertently or not, Rubio is right. That is, Rubio is right to think programs such as philosophy, and liberal arts educa­tions more generally, offer something importantly different from “vocational training.” Unfortunately, colleges and universities and liberal arts programs themselves increasingly emphasize the transferable, vocational skills students learn in their classrooms—an emphasis that carries risks that should not be ignored.

Liberal arts programs today often stress the instrumental value they provide to students. This is evident in the way those in the liberal arts pitch their disciplines and courses. For instance, the American Philosophical Association adorns its website with “department tool kits” and flyers for philosophy departments to pitch their programs to their insti­tutions and students. In addition to the perhaps surprisingly high average income of philosophy graduates, the flyer goes on to list many of the well-known instrumental benefits touted by philosophy programs. These instrumental benefits include higher average scores on common graduate entrance exams, better leadership or management skills, and phi­losophy’s much-lauded critical thinking and analytic writing skills.

Of course, as philosophers ourselves, we believe all of this is true. As Fiona Czerniawska (the director of the Management Consultancies Association’s think tank) puts it, firms such as hers find folks with phi­losophy degrees to be valuable because a “philosophy degree has trained the individual’s brain and given them the ability to provide management-consulting firms with the sort of skills that they require and clients demand. These skills can include the ability to be very analytical, provide clear and innovative thinking, and question assumptions.” The question, therefore, is not whether a degree in philosophy provides instrumental benefits to the discipline’s graduates; it does. Rather, the question is what explains these programs’ sudden shift toward talking about the instrumental benefits of pursuing degrees in their fields of study.

Changing Methods

In some cases, this shift might be in response to student demand (or to the demands of parents and guardians). To use one of our home institutions as an example, Wofford College charges $69,115 in tuition and fees for students living on campus in the 2023–24 academic year. And while the College Board reports that (with roughly 58 percent of students receiving financial aid) the average actual cost is roughly half this advertised rate, the increasing cost of postsecondary education in the United States nevertheless contributes to the growing pressures on institutions and programs to promise a substantial return on investment. Indeed, it is not uncommon for students interested in pursuing a philosophy major to report familial concern about their career prospects after college. These pressures almost certainly contrib­ute to the increased marketing of transferable skills by liberal arts programs.

In other cases, part of this shift may be attribut­able to bad actors or surreptitious market forces. For instance, the first two metrics in Florida’s performance-based funding model are “Percent of Bachelor’s Graduates Employed (Earning $40,000+) or Con­tinuing Their Education” and “Median Wages of Bachelor’s Graduates Employed Full-Time.” It would stand to reason, therefore, that insofar as a university’s budget is tied to succeeding according to these metrics, departments and programs within these institutions may be similarly motivated to show they are succeed­ing along these metrics as well.

However, we think these explanations miss an underlying cause, both because not all colleges and universities operate under similar performance-based funding models, and because similar shifts are occurring at public institutions where tuition is dramatically lower than at private institutions like Wofford. The alternative explanation that would be applicable to all institutions and programs is that assessments (and particularly quantitative assess­ments) themselves are reshaping institutions. As Wendy Espeland and Michael Sauder note in their insightful 2016 book, Engines of Anxiety, although many quantitative measurements (like law school rankings) have a veneer of objectivity, such mea­surements “have the tendency to transform the phenomena they are meant only to reflect” by creat­ing “new incentives and power dynamics” within institutions.

For example, at Florida International University, where one of us teaches, the official description of the University Core Curriculum (UCC) stipulates that

Florida International University seeks to develop productive, creative, and responsible citizens who both shape society and lay the foundation for tomorrow. In addition to exploring areas of specialization, the university experience must provide a venue for investigating the origins and natures of cultures, ideas, and the physical universe and endow graduates with the ability to analyze critically, think sustainably, learn creatively, and express themselves clearly and cogently. Diversity and breadth of experience are essential characteristics of both education and success in our global community.

The UCC provides the broad, well-defined curriculum that enables graduates to think critically, analytically, and creatively, with a passion to learn and with the skills and ability to assemble, assess, incorporate, and synthesize new knowledge and information; organize and clearly express their knowledge and ideas; and deter­mine the importance and relevance of new ideas through a synthesis of both broad and narrow contexts and the integration of seemingly dispa­rate pieces into a meaningful whole. [emphasis added]

Notably, in addition to emphasizing the familiar goals of critical thinking and offering students an exposure to a range of topics and materials that are fundamental to many understandings of a liberal arts education, FIU also references many qualitative learning objectives for UCC courses (such as devel­oping students’ “passion to learn” and to “learn creatively”).

Despite lofty commitments to qualitative and affective learning outcomes in the general description of the purpose of UCC courses, the actual learn­ing objectives found in the course catalog quickly dispense with these goals, emphasizing instead measurable and transferable skills. For instance, the objectives for UCC humanities courses listed in the catalog include “students will confirm the ability to think critically through demonstrating interpre­tive ability and cultural literacy” and “students will acquire competence in reflecting critically upon the human condition.” The point here is not that curricula such as FIU’s UCC have been captured by institution- and state-level market incentives. Rather, we believe that a by-product of the drive to develop metrics to evaluate programs (such as the UCC) has been to allow quantitative metrics of evaluation to crowd out qualitative or affective ones.

The drive toward developing measurable assess­ment metrics is not unique to FIU or to higher education in general. Indeed, in her compelling book The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking, Sally Engle Merry argues that similar patterns have emerged in the realms of international human rights and global governance. As Merry writes, “Those who create indicators aspire to measure the world but, in practice, [they] create the world they are measuring.” The prob­lem, in other words, is not unique to higher education or the liberal arts, but given the prevalence of such assessments in our classrooms, programs, and institu­tions, we ought to be particularly attuned to the ways these assessments are actively shaping and transform­ing the programs they purport to be measuring.

Limits of Instrumental Values

So far, we have argued that the language about “workplace readiness” and “transferable skills” that now adorns the landing pages of many liberal arts programs is partly a response to demands for measurement and assessment rather than insidious market forces or surreptitious actors. Now we want to consider why this newfound emphasis might be a problem: if curiosity, empathy, open-mindedness, or other noninstrumental values are constitutive of a liberal arts education, then pursuing a liberal arts education for the instrumental values such an educa­tion could bring might be self-defeating. Notably, we do not argue for the claim that these are the constitu­tive values of a liberal arts education, and undoubtedly there will be disagreement about what, exactly, the con­stitutive values are. Notice, however, so long as there is agreement that some set of noninstrumental values are (at least partially) constitutive of what a liberal arts education is, then our argument will still hold.

One way to think about this claim draws on influential work from the philosophy of science on the possibility of “top-down causes,” the notion that wholes can have a causal effect on their parts. Con­sider philosophers Carl F. Craver and William Bechtel’s helpful example of a car. While there might be many values attributable to any individual car (sentimental value, aesthetic value, and so on), the value of most cars comes from their utility in transporting a person from point A to point B. In short, the car has the instrumen­tal value, or the effect, of transporting people. But how is the instrumental value realized? A car without wheels isn’t likely to get you anywhere. Nor is a car without an engine. But neither the wheels nor the engine could get you from point A to point B on their own; the wheels and the engine are transported by the car.

The same can be said for a liberal arts education. A liberal arts education undeniably has many impor­tant instrumental values. However, the constitutive components of a liberal arts education (which make these values realizable) are not themselves instru­mental. As a result, one might be causally excluded from reaping the instrumental benefits of a liberal arts education if one fails to pursue it for the right reasons, for if a liberal arts education is constituted by noninstrumental values such as curiosity, inquiry, and open-mindedness, then any instrumental value reaped from this education will remain unrealizable. To spell out this analogy more fully, let’s take the example of curiosity. To take curiosity as constitutive of a liberal arts education’s ability to enable problem-solving would be analogous to saying the wheels of the car are constitutive of the car’s ability to enable it to transport us. Attempting to get the benefits of problem-solving skills without this constitutive value would be like attempting to get the car to transport you without the wheels. Without curiosity students simply won’t have access to the requisite problem-solving skills, in the same way that the car simply will not transport you without the wheels, no matter how much you rev the engine.

Thinking this way about the problem with over­emphasizing the instrumental value of a liberal arts education makes an important point clear: if the noninstrumental values of a liberal arts education are part of what make the instrumental values realizable, then we should be worried about how measuring the latter with no reference to the former may erode or obfuscate the development of these values over time.

Consider another analogy, friendship. Undoubt­edly, many friendships have instrumental benefits and values. In addition to obvious benefits, such as companionship and having someone to watch your cat for the weekend, friendship has increasingly been shown to offer health benefits. As the Mayo Clinic’s website notes, “Friendships can have a major impact on your health and well-being. . . . Good friends are good for your health.” Indeed, this claim is backed up by one of the longest-ever longitudinal studies on adult life, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which found that close relationships have as much of an influence on our health as factors such as genet­ics, diet, and exercise. Like a liberal arts education, therefore, friendship undeniably provides important instrumental goods. However, if one were to pursue friendship for these benefits, one would not only not have a “true” friendship but would also likely nullify any instrumental benefit one was seeking.

Writing about the corrupting forces of money and markets in his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Michael Sandel explains why this might be the case. Friendship, according to Sandel, is an honorific good. And while honorific goods can have instrumental value associated with them, this instrumental value is not what gives them actual value. To help underscore this point, Sandel asks us to consider the example of coveted prizes such as the Nobel Prize or an Oscar. Yes, it’s true that Michael Jackson once purchased Gone with the Wind’s Best Picture Oscar for $1.54 million, but it doesn’t follow that Michael Jackson “purchased the Oscar.” Jackson purchased the token of an Oscar award (the iconic gold statue), but the award itself, and the derivative instrumental goods (such as pres­tige and honor) that flow from the award, cannot be bought or sold. Like friendship, then, a liberal arts education is, in part, constituted by a certain set of social norms, values, and practices that are often corroded or dissolved when they are displaced by instrumental values. In the same way, buying an Oscar for prestige, or befriending your neighbor for health benefits, dissolves the honorific good and may preclude one from enjoying the instrumental benefits that flow from it.

Still, one might object that education is not like friendship or Oscars. Indeed, prominent economists have argued that education’s effects on earnings have less to do with the development of particular skills than with education’s function as a signal that helps employers respond to information asymmetry when sorting through applicants. If this proposi­tion is true, then it makes no difference whether any particular individual actually gains the instrumental benefits from a liberal arts education; it is the degree itself that sends the signal, and not any of the skills associated with it. A college diploma, in short, is like the Oscar statue—and insofar as the instrumental benefits that flow from education persist even when merely the token is present, there is little reason to think these values will either have any effect on the thing itself or preclude individuals from enjoying their benefits.

Regardless of the truth or falsity of signaling or sorting theories of education, the emphasis on the instrumental value of a liberal arts education—and particularly on the measuring of those values—poses risks. If some of the instrumental benefits that flow from a liberal arts education are a result of signal­ing, it would then become even more important to preserve the token—to preserve the thing doing the signaling.

Take the example of friendship again. If people valued their friends because they increased their over­all life expectancy, this could corrode and dissolve the goods associated with the thing itself. As a result, friendship may no longer increase life expectancy, because valuing friendship in this way would trans­form what “friendship” is.

The same might be said of a liberal arts education. If some of the instrumental benefits that flow from a liberal arts education are the result of signaling, then we have reason to think these benefits will remain ascertainable only if the signal remains intact. If these derivative goods are realizable only when the consti­tutive values of a liberal arts education are realized first, then prioritizing those goods may (counterintui­tively) inhibit the very possibility of their realization.

Taking Stock

We do not claim that all education looks like a liberal arts education, or that all college or university educa­tion must continue to conform to the liberal arts model. Indeed, many important technical advance­ments and skills might be better realized outside of this model. Nor do we claim that all measurements or assessments in liberal arts education are bad. Instead, our central claim is that if some set of values is constitutive of a liberal arts education, then the shift toward emphasizing the transferable, workplace-ready skills may carry with it significant risks. Above all, this shift may pose a threat to realizing the very skills such programs now increasingly tout to their students, and this should give us pause in thinking about how we talk about—and measure—the out­comes of such programs.

Eric Scarffe is assistant professor of philosophy at Florida International University. His email address is [email protected]. Katherine Valde is assistant professor of philosophy at Wofford College. Her email address is [email protected].