Showing Students the Money: A Pragmatic Defense of the Humanities Education

Buried in Lauren Russell’s article for CNN on the increasingly “career-driven” college student lies a glimmer of hope for the humanities education: Although “[b]usiness and technical majors fared better in the job market this year,” a university career advisor notes, “‘[c]hoosing liberal arts doesn’t necessarily mean joblessness’” (emphasis added).1 Time for English majors to break out the champagne, I guess.

David Brooks, meanwhile, begins an op-ed piece in The New York Times with a common defense of the value of the humanities education against Russell’s familiar and painful set of job-market statistics. Brooks notes that “[s]tudying the humanities improves your ability to read and write.” Such work also makes you familiar with “the language of emotion,” to which he credits the enormous success of the iPod, by way of a focus on the device’s branding.

Sounds great, right? It’s undeniable that doing a lot of reading and writing—minimum requirements for any humanities course at any institution, I hope—makes you better at reading and writing, valued skills at most jobs. It also makes sense to think that understanding why people have been painting and telling stories for so long—and, to a lesser extent, what they have been painting and telling stories about—will earn you some kind of knowledge about the human animal, which might prove useful to you in creating successful products or brands, as Brooks claims.

But there is something wrong here. Industry may value good readers and writers already on the payroll, but it’s relatively rare for most companies to know ahead of time that they ought to seek out such capable humanists in the first place. (Russell’s story aims primarily to support this point with hard numbers.) Understanding human emotion and the language that accompanies it may have helped Steve Jobs brand the iPod, but, as he’s fond of noting, he dropped out of Reed College after one semester. However useful the humanities education may prove once you’re on the job, not even Brooks argues that it gives you a leg up as a job seeker. I don’t know of anybody who has.

So it makes sense that Rebecca Mead’s defense of the humanities education in The New Yorker attempts to sidestep the question of what kinds of jobs a graduate might or might not land. She writes:

[O]ne needn’t necessarily be a liberal-arts graduate to regard as distinctly and speciously utilitarian the idea that higher education is, above all, a route to economic advancement. Unaddressed in that calculus is any question of what else an education might be for: to nurture critical thought; to expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind; to develop in them an ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently.

On the one hand, it’s valiant of Mead to try to make the case for a sui gratia approach to the humanities. On the other, she might as well have typed her argument in ink made from the ashes of hundred dollar bills.

That is, if we want to sell the humanities within current labor and economic conditions, we need an argument that appeals to people making tough, smart choices about whether to go to college, and, if so, what to study. We need an argument that works within that utilitarian calculus, specious or not, because it’s the one many parents and students use—and they do so for good, fiscally responsible reasons. To push the humanities on those it won’t benefit financially, as Mead would and Brooks might, is a little like a real estate agent pushing inflatable mortgages: Sure, your client gets the house, but at what cost?

I want to offer here a defense of the humanities education that is career-oriented (unlike Mead’s) and that focuses on job seeking rather than personal or even professional betterment (unlike Brooks’s). It begins with my own experience. Since I graduated in 2002, I’ve found success in a field that, like most, doesn’t reward anybody for being able to quote Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror from memory, which at any rate I can do no longer. Yet I feel almost certain that I could not have secured the jobs I have—let alone succeeded in them, a point we can again concede to Brooks—without my liberal-arts education. (Emphasis on “liberal”; I went to Hampshire College.)

I learned how to package and sell myself—my skills and my potential value to a company—just by learning how to package the ideas in my Division III, a kind of intensive senior thesis. In doing the work of the project, I learned how to research anything, whether previous scholarship on early cinema or techniques for the job search. I learned how to talk to people, how to make arguments out loud, how to respond to skepticism off-the-cuff, as one must so often do in interviews. These skills have won me many job offers.

I’m presenting anecdotal evidence here, and I also learned at Hampshire the limitations of argumentation based on such things. But we can acknowledge that my story would not be everybody’s and suppose that the value of the humanities education might be much more individual than blanket defenses (or attacks, for that matter) can tolerate. For some, an education in the humanities may well be the path to the jobs they want, while for others career-focused degrees might be the better choice.

The task for humanities programs and liberal-arts institutions is to preserve those aspects of themselves essential in allowing the right students to find the humanities and learn from them. At Hampshire, this means preserving a flexible but rigorous program operated, in a sense, by capable faculty working as teachers and advisors. Yet liberal-arts schools must also be honest about the fact that selling one’s degree in the humanities on the job market requires a special set of strategies. My point here is just that it’s not impossible to make the argument that getting a degree like mine can, in fact, be a pragmatic decision.

1: I think there’s some slippage in this whole conversation between the terms “humanities” and “liberal arts.” I’m content for now to blame it on the writers I quote, some of whom mistake the focus of one’s education (which may lie within the humanities, depending on your major) with the curriculum in which it takes place (which may be in the liberal arts, depending on your school). [Back to article]

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