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The Daily Tar Heel

Where is the actual bottom line?

Two years ago, my sociology professor kicked off the semester with a bang.

On the surface, he was talking about attendance. He discussed the irrationality of the excitement a student gets from a canceled class. He could think of no other consumer that so eagerly wanted to be scammed.

But this introduction raises the question: How do we define a valuable education?

Through the Innovate@Carolina initiative, Chancellor Holden Thorp has articulated a very specific vision of the value of academic endeavors at UNC, namely “to bring the power of innovation and entrepreneurship to bear on the world’s biggest problems.” In some ways, this approach hits the nail on the head.

Innovation, generally speaking, requires us to uncover the limitations of the status quo, imagine new possibilities and figure out ways of translating the virtual into the actual. Innovation is renewal, change and creation — what a way to think about what it is we do here at UNC.

The University is going to great lengths to show that liberal arts have a place in this vision. Yet Innovate@Carolina seems to view innovation through a strictly entrepreneurial lens. It asks first and foremost how innovative ideas can be translated into marketable goods.

This might be a perfectly adequate way of measuring innovation in the applied sciences, but we must ask ourselves whether we can understand the innovative work of the humanities in the same way.

Economics has given us a way of measuring the value of tangible, innovative products ranging from cures for diseases to iPods.

However, some products simply cannot be measured in economic terms.

Philosophies don’t have patents — least of all the ones that actually reveal and solve problems. Maybe markets are so effective at measuring and comparing certain forms of value that we forget humans produce things that transcend ECON 101.

The innovation that takes place in our religious studies, communication and anthropology departments provides new frameworks for understanding what Innovate@Carolina calls the “world’s biggest problems.”

In the humanities, uncovering the limitations of our assumptions is itself part of the creative process. Articulating social problems is the product of education and academic work.

I don’t want to reduce the value of my education to the market value of my GPA and degree. In a similar vein, intellectual innovation cannot always be translated into an economic good — a single product with market value.

While entrepreneurship is an important way of measuring the value of academic activity, it cannot be the only one.

As humanities departments in major universities across the country wither on the budgetary vine, we need to articulate another way of measuring the value of the ideas we produce that go beyond conventional wisdom.

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