The Humanities aren’t dead, they just don’t want to get involved


It’s a sad truth that everyone and their uncle these days wants to kick the Humanities and laugh at those students who elect to get a degree in one of the subjects it encompasses.

You see governments being lobbied to cut funding for philosophy, for literature, for languages, for history, so that the money can be funnelled into the magic STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine. You hear of people with graduate degrees in the liberal arts whose best option, a year after graduation, is to buckle down and really learn how to foam milk for a stellar cappuccino or latté. It’s hard to pay off a mountain of student debt on a barista’s income.

Now, given the endless trimming that’s going on, you’d think humanities departments would be fighting back. The Humanities, after all, are the home of people who read a lot, and write a lot, and whose writing might actually be interesting to someone in the general public from time to time (scientific types may put out more papers filled with intermediate results, but you generally need to know the discipline to follow them).

Do you see that? No. Instead, in university after university, the Humanities become the last bastion of maintaining “the order we’ve known for decades”. Classes only taught during working hours. Office hours only during working hours. Keeping going with “sage on the stage” teaching and eschewing electronic resources in favour of being in the room at a specific time. That’s not universal — there are lots of people in the Humanities exploring and using the latest methods and technologies out there — but there are also a fair number who want nothing to change.

My degrees are in philosophy. I also did them while working full-time. That was unusual in the 1980s and early 1990s, but today it’s the norm: it’s quite common to find three quarters of the student body at a city university today be (a) over 23 years old and (b) not carrying a full load.

I was ridiculed by some of my professors for showing up at a 4:00 pm class wearing my suit and tie (I had jumped the subway from the office, to which I would return to finish the day). These same professors (who weren’t, at the time, much older than me) would have literally choked if they’d been told they had a class scheduled for 7:00 pm — or in an online tool like Blackboard instead of a seminar room.

I tell you that because the core of the problem for the Humanities that students studying them need to overcome is buried in that set of attitudes.

I am the first to stand up for the notion that a liberal arts education — using your university years to form yourself as a better human being, to (as the Latin root of “education”, e-ducare, suggests) “draw out” a fully formed person — is essential for long-term success. The ability to think historically or philosophically, to draw upon other mental maps of the universe (found by attending to languages), to comprehend (literally, “get your hands around”) art and culture are the grounds for being adaptable, a creative problem-solver, able to master complex materials quickly and thoroughly, to handle masses of information and distil out what’s essential in it …

Aren’t these core skills for a career in any large organization? Aren’t these exactly what a budding entrepreneur starting up their own venture might need to judge the opportunity, know when to shift gears and know when to stand their ground and get the market to change instead, and the like? Aren’t these the core of what you’d want in someone doing serious policy wonkery?

The problem — as those who want to denigrate and defund the Humanities hold — isn’t that graduates from these fields aren’t “job ready”, or that the material doesn’t obviously relate to some job title or other in the vast hierarchy of organized life.

The problem is that Humanities graduates need to make the case for how their skills — not their knowledge, but their skills — apply to the position they’re striving to get.

This, by the way, is something everyone has to do, every time they want to change jobs. It’s why you find all that advice out there about rewriting your résumé to tailor it to the job specification you’re going after.

That managers and human resources departments are lazy and think “I want an engineer, he’s an engineer, good enough” instead of saying “I want a problem-solver who can do x, y, and z, who can do that” when looking at a pile of applications is simply a problem the Humanities graduate has to overcome.

If you can relate your studies (and your prior work experience) to real problems and real solutions, you’re in good shape. If you can draw out your skills (and hopefully show where you’ve put them into action) you’re also in good shape.

If you expect a computer program scanning résumés “submitted by email only in Word format” to turn “philosopher” or “sociologist” into “rigorous thinker, excellent researcher, solid presenter” you can forget getting hired. If you expect a human resources officer or supervisor to figure out on their own how your ability to think historically (as well as functionally) and to craft words for reports stems from your English Literature & History degree, well, you’re asking for way too much.

Your professors might still be dreaming of the days when all students were full-time, never held a job while studying, work occurred only between 9:00 and 5:00, and the value of their studies was held in esteem for its own sake.

You don’t have to — indeed, to succeed, you’re going to have to do the opposite. You’re going to have to get involved in selling your skills and making the connection between what you’ve learned, and the work that’s on offer.

Or you can pour coffee or serve fries with that. Your choice.

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