The Future of the Humanities

This week I’ll continue in the spirit of considering the future but with a broader perspective. One of the things on the mind of every humanities Ph.D. student is the bleak job market in higher education, which raises larger questions about the role of our field in society. Earlier this semester, I wrote a short paper for my thesis class about the future of the humanities, which I will share here. The paper was in response to a number of conflicting articles on this issue, written in prominent news publications such as The New York Times and The Atlantic. I will link to each article in the body of the text, but there will also be a Works Cited below.

The debate about the future of the humanities is really a much deeper debate about how we define success as humanity. Is success quantifiable? Is it related to the amount of money we earn and pour into the economy and the kind of prestige society attaches to a particular career? Or is success fundamentally qualitative, abstract, and intangible—something related to virtue or self-fulfillment?

Traditionally, the humanities and liberal arts universities were established to develop good well-rounded citizens—a form of qualitative success. (Patricia Cohen) Now, as unemployment rates spiral higher and economies weaken, we are told that the university’s job is instead to produce quantitatively successful and employable individuals. It is a shift from holistic self-development to vocational training, as society recognizes an economic need and turns to the university to solve that problem. The more fundamental problem is that the liberal arts university historically has not been in the business of meeting the economic needs of society. In fact, the liberal arts university has never been particularly “cost effective” or even concerned about cost. Until the latter half of the twentieth century, only a small percentage of the population attended university and an even smaller population studied the humanities. Even then, Cohen says, one studied the humanities because one could afford to do so and because one thought it was fundamentally important to invest time into thinking about what it means to be human.

The emerging critique of the humanities, however, is grounded in a cost/benefit analysis. Will studying the humanities get you jobs? Critics say no and point to STEM or business-oriented vocational fields instead as the answer. The opposition to this STEM argument falls into two camps. The first camp, which includes Patricia Cohen, retorts by arguing that the humanities are economically viable and by displaying employment evidence related to liberal arts graduates. This camp chooses to argue using the logic of the opposition. The second camp refuses to engage in a cost/benefit analysis because they believe such an argument begins with the wrong kind of question and misses the purpose of the humanities. Mark Edmundsen, who belongs to this camp, argues that the goal of pursuing the humanities is for a better life, not a better career. When you approach the humanities from a quantitative perspective, while you may win a short-term argument, you fundamentally misrepresent the humanities, which has long-term ramifications to society’s wellbeing.

However, at some point even the second camp of humanities advocates have to address the economics of the crisis. If the argument for the humanities is that all people deserve to have a chance at an education that teaches one how to think, make wise decisions, communicate well, and empathize better with one’s fellow citizen, how will society financially support such an education in today’s ever-expanding world? Our current model for teaching the humanities may not be financially viable. This is where I found University College London’s “The Humanities Matter!” infographic subtly brilliant. (Click on the image to expand it.)The Humanities Matter!

While the image does lay out quantitative evidence related to the humanities, it does not do so in the form of an argument that humanities majors will get jobs. It simply points out that the opposite argument —humanities majors are unemployable and an economic drain on society (Thomas Benton’s position)—doesn’t seem to be true. The lack of funding for the humanities is not a response to flaws in teaching the humanities but perhaps the actual cause of the crisis. The infographic doesn’t solve any problems, but it does point out that the humanities are statistically not the problem. This is also Heidi Tworek’s argument in regards to women who have avoided humanities degrees because they thought it would make them more economically viable in a traditionally male-dominated workforce.

Along with the second pro-humanities camp, I agree that a quantitative rubric for the qualitative humanities doesn’t make any sense. In addition, I resonate with Edmundson who aptly points out that our society’s glorification of expediency and comfort has impacted attitudes towards the humanities. The humanities don’t contribute to Enlightenment values of quantitative success that contemporary society has prioritized; instead the humanities question the status quo and make people feel uncomfortable. He writes, “But the humanities are not about success. They’re about questioning success — and every important social value.” Those moments of discomfort are extremely important because they provide space for introspection and self-reflexivity as a society. You can’t put a financial valuation on such a benefit.

Simultaneously, however, I do recognize that it is likely economically impossible for all people to receive the traditional version of a liberal arts university degree. Instead we need to find ingenuous and creative ways in which to integrate the humanities into all forms of education, recognizing that the humanities hold a different but equally important value to society, alongside vocational preparation. I don’t have the answers as to how we would do so, but I do believe it is time that the argument shifted from attacking the humanities’ economic viability to investigating how we can make the humanities integral to every tier and form of education.

Works Cited

Benton, Thomas H. Graduate school in the humanities: Just don’t go. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 30 Jan. 2009. Web.
Cohen, Patricia. “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.” The New York Times. 22 Nov. 2014, sec. Books. Web.
Edmundson, Mark. “Why Major in Humanities? Not Just for a Good Job — for a Good Life.” Washington Post. 8 Aug. 2013, sec. Opinions. Web.
Terras, M., Priego, E., Liu, A., Rockwell, G., Sinclair, S., Hensler, C., and Thomas, L. (2013). “The Humanities Matter!” Infographic,
Tworek, Heidi. “The Real Reason the Humanities Are ‘in crisis.’” The Atlantic. 18 Dec. 2013. Web.

Featured image courtesy of & Sankowsky, made available through a CC0 license.

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1 Comment +

  1. I really enjoyed this analysis of the humanities! As a student at a liberal arts university, I definitely encounter this question often. Even the university itself sometimes seems to give greater credence to the “harder” academic subjects like hard sciences, which is frustrating to me. Both are important!
    I spent a lot of time grappling with the issue during my summer research about public engagement. Public engagement is a way that liberal arts professors/humanities scholars are trying to ‘legitimize’ (for lack of a better word) their field. I think public engagement is a great way we can do both of the things you wrote about – improving the perceived economic value of the humanities by applying it to daily life AND making more people aware that the humanies are actually really useful and necessary.
    Thanks for writing 🙂

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