Women's Studies departments are sort of easy targets. Conservatives criticize them as amounting to activism instead of scholarship, and not being intellectually serious. Some stuents and parents complain that a degree in Women's Studies is not very profitable; like a Latin degree, you're most likely to end up working in academia. I can't comment on the intellectual criticisms, having never taken a course in that field. However, I will note that the word "studies", which some take as left-wing code, just means that the department is interdisciplinary- scholars from different areas working together on a common topic. Interdisciplinary work is sorely needed in academia, where scholars tend to know everything about one topic and nothing about how it relates to the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, the criticisms make the department easy prey. Make no mistake- the university administration objects to the department primarily because it has low enrollment: many of the Women's Studies courses attract less than ten students, or as they are apparently called internally, "basic income units". Like the American universities that have begun to rid themselves of publishing houses argue, losing money during a recession is a sure ticket to the scrapyard. Those of us who are aghast that a university would see publishing scholarly books or encouraging interdisciplinary study as peripheral to the academic mission already know the response: it's just business.
This, I think, is what's unnerving to me about dismantling women's studies. We're living in an era in which worried parents are likely pushing their children to major in something profitable- or euphemistically "responsible"; we can expect law and business schools to be sitting in the cat bird seat. In contrast, expect things like Medieval History and Classical Languages to be underenrolled. When you've decided that the academic mission is first and foremost to make a shit-load of money, it's hard to justify keeping unprofitable departments around at all (although, interestingly, it's never hard to justify keeping unprofitable sports programs). It's therefore possible to imagine a future university- a lot of universities- without a degree in Latin. After all, life is about the Benjamins, not the Augustins.
The problem with this mentality- often called a "free market" ideology, but perhaps better called the Middle Class Mindset- is that it's nearly impossible to argue with. Why should societies choose to lose money? Why would anyone choose to lose money? Norman Mailer, who was basically middle class himself said something funny about this:
"In the middle classes, the remark, 'He made a lot of money,' ends the conversation. If you persist, if you try to point out that the money was made by digging through his grandmother's grave to look for oil, you are met by a middle-class shrug."I think the problem though is that it's impossible to argue with a bourgeois for devoting one's life to anything unprofitable. Why should a student get a degree in Medieval Literature? Have you seen what they pay those people?
And yet, I suppose I'm a 'cultural conservative' in that I believe that culture which elevates is worth more than that which lowers. So for me the novels of Aurthur Schnitzler are worth more than those of Dan Brown- this in spite of the fact that "the market" says I'm wrong on that count. I believe that Chopin is better than gangsta rap and Ingmar Bergman's movies are better than rape porn- according to the market, I'm dead wrong there as well. In fact, before they take me to the asylum, I might as well admit that I'm fine with judging culture by other standards- say beauty and truth- than their market share. I believe that cultural value has nothing to do with market value.
In that regard, it's interesting to me that nobody has talked yet about "letting the market decide" which religions are worth preserving. The idea that a priest is a leech on society because he doesn't create wealth would, thankfully, appall the middle class- although students of the French Revolution might remember a time in which the rising middle class was all-too-happy to be rid of those leeches. But, in fact, all of us recognize certain things as having cultural value, even if they have no market value. There are few of us who would argue that Van Gogh wasted his life by painting instead of becoming an accountant, although there are certainly parents who would rather have the accountant than Van Gogh for a son.
But, to the students, I say- don't worry. In the end, all degrees increase your 'earning power'. The legend of the philosophy PhD who works at 7-11 is totally exaggerated. There are plenty of people in the white collar world who got their job simply because they have a college degree, even if that degree happens to be in Medieval Literature. We have a friend who works in ordering and shipping who makes money hand over fist, and her degree was in something much more interesting than ordering and shipping. The job bores her to tears; but she can buy things that Claire and I can only dream of. She's on her second house!
Here's the punchline though: if you spend your life doing something that bores you to tears in order to buy nice things, it will slowly and surely eat you alive. Sorry. Your parents never tell you this, because in many cases it hits too close to home, but people who spend all day at jobs they hate are not free. It's as simple as that. They might be semi-free- after all, they constitute the free market- but in a fundamental way, they are unfree. And libertarians, who never seem to consider economic servitude to be unfreedom, might ask themselves how they can expect people who are dragging themselves through their lives to stand up for political freedom. What difference does it make to live in a police state, so long as you can get to the supermarket before curfew? Can I still buy a black leather couch under tyranny?
It's hard for me to explain why it is that letting the market decide the value of academic programs strikes me as being as culturally poisonous as letting the market decide the value of churches. I'm certainly not "anti-Capitalist", if only because the societies that have been anti-capitalist tended to be less free. I just recognize other sorts of value as being worth more than market share. I think the priests would understand.
And societies, if they hope to facilitate the sort of life that's worth living, need people who can say "This poem/ painting/ book/ thought/ dream/ faith/ etc. is worth having and preserving, even if its worth is not immediately evident or economic in nature". Some of the people who could say that sort of thing used to work in universities. Indeed, people who work in universities need to start saying those sorts of things a hell of a lot more often to people who don't work in universities. It's a matter of their cultural survival.