Does this European History seminar benefit the economy? Society? The students?

Literature departments offer seminars on Afro-Pessimism, communication classes lay bare the reinvention of childhood by advertisers in the 20th century, a gender studies thesis writer explains how aspiring actresses perform domestic femininity on TV to help them escape domestic work in real life.

Should we be educating our young in anything that does not make dollars? Why should the public subsidize the leftist intellectual avant-garde? Is it a public good that a Future Business Leader of America take a course in ethnic studies, or switch to major in it and give up business altogether?

To answer these questions, let’s consider how three “impractical” majors operate as part of the larger business of higher education.

That’s right, I am going to ignore the consumer point of view, wherein analytical mountebanks presume to advise young people in what is worth learning and how.

The perspective here is instead going to be business, because a major is part of a college’s business. The business of higher education is complex, with divisions and departments, research units and centers, facilities and technology support. Within this ecosystem, a major is a program of study available to an undergraduate student. It is possible for a major to be a detriment to the entire school, if, for example, no one will teach it for a reasonable wage or its students hurt the society by their training. A major can also be very helpful to have around and this does not have to do with its supposed “difficulty.”

It has, within the last few decades, become a popular opinion that any major is to be taken seriously to the extent that it resembles a high school math test. If students are to learn specific facts and formulas that could be listed out or presented comprehensively in a textbook, then the topic is solid stuff. On the other hand, the essence of a fluffy major is precisely that grading is not objective, that the issues discussed are of concern to the average person, and that questions of politics are unavoidable. Strangely, among high school students, the common sense is just the opposite: pay attention in history because it describes the world where you live, but you can forget the quadratic equation and steps of the Krebs cycle because no one but the specialist ever uses these again. Any field of human inquiry can be translated into a course for students and graded with a more or less aggressive pen. There is nothing worse about those taught as complex, creative engagements where everything is open to question and the desire to weed out misled children is less. Yet some majors are seen as less harrowing and therefore less practical.

So how do the suspect majors stay afloat, given their widespread vilification? Let’s look at three examples.

One of the first majors hastily re-categorized as a waste of time, English nonetheless reflects a body of scholarship held in high regard. No one is yet willing to say that studying Shakespeare, and the many spellings of his name, is a fool’s errand. In fact, any respectable college or university wouldn’t be caught dead without an English major. Whatever the actual value of an education in literature (and whatever the meaning of “literature” may be!) a school without it is hardly a school at all. If it is a college without an English major, it is a vocational training center. Without English, the college does not even appear on the US News & World Report rankings, which require a “full range of undergraduate majors.” Who could respect such a place as a center of undergraduate learning?

Here we come to a key rule about colleges and universities: reputation. Schools run on it. To flourish, a school needs good students. Those students may have trouble committing to a school without English, but even if it is no barrier in their mind, it is a drawback from the perspective of the many parents, advisors, teachers, and peers who influence the application and matriculation process.

Why the fuss about “good” students? Students with clever things to say and good ideas make seminars worthwhile and educate their peers better than the teachers can. Those who enter with exceptional talents, of whatever kind, will also graduate with them, which contributes again to the school’s reputation.

Now the really twisted part. The whole business runs on prestige. For only some schools will tuition be the primary source of income. (Mostly this is the model of for-profit schools, which I have ignored throughout.) It turns out it’s the little things that count: taking a cut of professors’ grants, money from merchandise and licensing, alumni giving, state funding, dining dollars, intellectual property, returns from the endowment, rent, and real estate are the real revenue streams.

For almost all of its income streams, the school needs prestige. Faculty get grants more easily if they are already at “better” schools. People with no relatives at an Ivy League school still buy the merchandise. Alumni have little interest in their alma mater if the school is nothing to brag about or if they have not used its good name to their advantage. For all these and more, prestige makes profits.

Critically, it takes prestige to gain prestige. PhD students get jobs according to a rule of tribal exogamy, landing jobs at higher prestige schools if they come from prestige themselves. College alumni have better access to jobs and further education just by putting the name of their school on the application. Faculty grants, awards, and publications follow the same pattern. Hospitals, schools, and other ventures in the community do too.

Where is literature in all this? It’s a kind of loss leader: the college keeps Literature so Bioinformatics gets bigger grants and Chemical Engineering attracts better students. Congratulations to literature for getting in early enough that it is, for now, indispensable. Cutting literature, or taking students out of the major hurts the school’s whole operation and that is why there is support for the major.

This analysis of literature could also apply to history, music, art, creative writing, and other prestige majors.

Example two, in which we consider a less reputable major. Communication(s) is widely known as easy work for jocks and those others with neither talent nor time for school. This is deliberate. In the mid 20th century, when the major started springing up, college populations were booming and new majors helped the system. Although no one was really sure what Communication would study, students enrolled in the classes and graduated with the degree. The administration was happy to have more options for students, happy to have students taking something they wanted, and happy to be expanding into what seemed to be a new academic frontier.

Many communication programs found that if they could increase the numbers of college students in their classes and major, they could hire more professors and perhaps take on graduate students to serve and amuse them. The intellectual culture of many communication programs reflects this, with faculty studying a range of esoteric topics united by the one steadfast rule: they must have some appeal to undergrads. So, whether studying free speech, sportscasting, or children’s learning, a thousand flowers bloomed.

Lesson: so long as communication holds down huge enrollments, let them study what they like. Economics students may take a class or two from it, pre-med students may switch in if they fail O-Chem, transfer students can jump into it to finish a degree quickly, and no one is the worse off. In fact, the major improves students experiences and helps keep the graduation rate respectable.

The communication hustle is similar to that of liberal studies, human development, and business. Let’s call these mass enrollment majors.

Clearly recognizable as nonsense by those who think all majors should help the workforce and its trustworthy captains, gender studies encourages students to ask hard questions about the role of gender in various aspects of life. These questions tend to have the same answer: current power structures are doing it wrong and it is hard to devise a good alternative. While hardly useful career advice, the nuances of this lesson are well worth learning.

Usually the major is offered by a semi-autonomous organization within the school, drawing in affiliate faculty from many departments. Because the major is small, graduating very few students every year, it does not threaten larger departments. In fact, it provides an opportunity for professors to teach classes on topics related to gender as they please (when it interests them), which makes them happy. The establishment of a major is a good line on anyone’s CV, which adds to the prestige of the school’s faculty. Many professors are movers and shakers, enthusiastic to change the system around them in some way that makes sense to them. If they want to start a new major, out of intellectual interest or political commitment, supporting the project keeps them around. So there is also an element of worker retention.

For students, there are more classes on gender to take and it becomes thereby more likely that each student will enroll in one. For many schools, getting students to take classes on gender counts toward diversity goals. Deans, Vice Chancellors, and other higher-ups have much to gain individually and as a group from making strides, apparent and substantive, towards such politically correct goals, so the major works for them.

The point: how did I forget to mention the radical polemics or anti-essentialist cosmopolitan contestation that is the actual content of most gender studies? Because what the particulars of the syllabus doesn’t matter much to the college as a business. A major such as this one can exist because it has some small benefit for those running the school, teaching the classes, and taking the classes.

Gender studies is in the same boat as religious studies, environmental studies, digital humanities, and other boutique topics.

Three examples and what have we learned?

As a business, there are several ways a major can make ends meet. Are some of these businesses better than others? What does this really mean? Some are like reality TV, financial successes with no real content. Some majors are like oil companies, doing solid business that supports vital parts of the economy, but also probably a bit evil. Some majors are small businesses that will never make a fortune, but, like a bookstore or non-profit, they do make life a bit better for everyone.

Fact: Many students will live different lives because of their majors. There are majors where the graduates will more easily find work. There are majors where the graduates will be more pleasant people to interact with. There are majors where the graduates will be trapped inside their parents’ expectations until the end of life.

But let’s be clear, all kinds of majors make sense as business. The complaint that they are a waste of time is not a meaningful criticism based on economic reality. It is instead a sentimental attack on the ideological content of other fields, phrased in economic terms to sound more serious. But the attack is not serious. Students should use their own means to decide what they want to do and accept their decisions as parts of their still developing selves. This is actually quite consistent with economics, writ large, which is a science of decisions, not of money.

To confine students to the perspectives of subjects of study that make the most money in the contemporary economy is to imagine that money is so much more satisfying than anything else, that engaging with other ideas is a waste of time. Would someone really defend this claim against thinking? When other majors already make sense for everyone else involved?

If the major makes money, then it also makes sense. Students—people—do different things with their lives. It is ok if they choose something that you wouldn’t.

Bio: Chuk Moran has a Ph.D. in Communication and B.A. in Gender Studies, but no affiliation with any department of literature. He is also the author of Superactually: Micro-Essays on Post-Ironic Life (Zero Books, 2013).