Humanities Matter(s)

As an academic in the field of English, I am hyper-aware of cultural conversations about higher education and the humanities. It seems not a day goes by without another media missive on the need to make higher education have more “value,” a word that is meant emphatically in an economic sense. Higher education should provide a “return on investment” as the new U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard makes clear in its prominent display of cost to post-graduation salary data for colleges and universities across the country. Looking at the data for my institution, the University of Georgia, you’d not learn much about our mission (“to teach, to serve, and to inquire into the nature of things,” for the record) or our foundational charge (“As it is the distinguishing happiness of free governments that civil Order should be the Result of choice and not necessity, and the common wishes of the People become the Laws of the Land, their public prosperity and even existence very much depends upon suitably forming the minds and morals of their Citizens” – The University of Georgia Charter, 1785) from the bar charts that focus primarily on financial information: “Average Annual Cost,” “Salary After Attending,” “Typical Total [student] Debt,” and, my personal favorite, “Percentage Earning Above High School Grad.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do understand and appreciate the need to ensure that students are not being bled dry for an education and then set adrift on the roiling seas of the 21st century global economy. We’ve all got to earn a living and college has long been viewed by our society as the ticket to a better life, economically, and the shift to information/knowledge work has meant that, increasingly, a high school diploma is not enough (of course, in many fields these days, neither is a bachelor’s degree). The jobs of the present and the future demand a lot of intellectual and professional training and we do need to be vigilant in making sure that training is accessible to all who want it. While I do believe that higher education has a higher purpose than simply vocational training, I readily acknowledge that we all need to survive and thrive in a world that becomes more complex and competitive by the day. Despite the fact that my university’s home is in a town called Athens, I can’t pretend that this is the Akadimia Platonos. We all gotta eat and that means we all gotta work. Ideally, that work should be engaging and gratifying, but how we each define that can give rise to tough choices, particularly for young people trying to find their paths through life.

It is here in this space between the hard realities of daily life and the need to earn a living and the ideal of a fulfilling and meaningful life and career that controversy over the value of different disciplines rages. The STEM vs. the humanities debates have been going on for a while now, so I’ll not rehash all that here. I think we all know that there is increasing pressure on students to major in scientific and technical fields and a concomitant disparagement of fields like mine as useless and anachronistic in today’s labor market. Those of us in the humanities spend a lot of time justifying our existence in terms of the skills and knowledge we inculcate in our students and we often feel under siege. But the picture is not so bleak. Here at UGA, we have a thriving English major, so clearly a lot of students at this university (and perhaps even some of their parents!) believe there is value in pursing that degree. As a teacher of writing, I have never lacked for justification for what I do – I hear all the time from every possible quarter how important writing skills are and I know from my past life in the business world that it is true. But here’s a rundown of just a handful of recent articles from major media outlets about the value of humanities/liberal arts study:

Back in September, the Washington Post published Steven Pearlstein’s piece on parents who pressure their kids not to study English, philosophy, history, and the like. In it, he takes on the stereotype of the un/deremployed liberal arts major with data that shows that there is little difference in jobless rates between humanities majors and business students. Here’s some more of this conversation from various quarters

Inside Higher Ed:

“Creative and independent thinkers are attracted to the English degree, and that course of study helps to develop their creativity and their initiative — the same personal qualities that serve them so well in the working world after graduation.”

USA Today:

“We need folks who can jump in, quickly see the issue, think critically and solve the problem . . . sort of like someone who was given some dense literary passage and had to read it, analyze it, and write intelligently about it in 45 minutes.”

Wall Street Journal:

“Looking back at the tech teams that I’ve built at my companies, it’s evident that individuals with liberal arts degrees are by far the sharpest, best­-performing software developers and technology leaders. Often these modern techies have degrees in philosophy, history, and music – even political science, which was my degree.”

“Philosophy, literature, art, history and language give students a thorough understanding of how people document the human experience. Technology is a part of our human experience, not a replacement to it.”

But the best way to make the benefits of humanities study clear is to look at what humanities students can do. So I want to show you some blogs from some English majors who wanted to share their work with the world. Take a look at the critical thinking and writing skills on display here. Notice how their backgrounds as English majors show their ability to read critically and communicate ideas effectively. They bring their knowledge of human experience, developed through study of all those “old books,” to bear on their analysis of digital media and technology and remind us that it’s not enough to build new tools and tech – we have to think critically about WHY we build what we build and HOW those tools get used and go on to shape how we communicate with each other and think about the world. These humanities students are doing vital work – let’s celebrate them and appreciate the important work they are doing instead of buying into the cultural narrative. “What are you going to do with a major in English?” Anything they want! Just take a look:

Company Kept

Catching Krazy

The Tea-Loving Ginger

The Digital Pagan

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