Oh, the humanities!*

March 8, 2009

Not too long ago, Thomas Benton (pseud.) made a splash with his exhortation for undergrads with humanities majors to steer clear of graduate school. He wrote, at the end of January,

Nearly every humanities field [is] already desperately competitive, with hundreds of applications from qualified candidates for every tenure-track position. Now the situation is becoming even worse. For example, the American Historical Association’s job listings are down 15 percent and the Modern Language’s listings are down 21 percent, the steepest annual decline ever recorded. Apparently, many already-launched candidate searches are being called off; some responsible observers expect that hiring may be down 40 percent this year.

Now, per the New York Times, doctoral candidates – especially ones with humanities degrees – are facing almost impossible odds against securing academic employment, let alone the coveted tenure-track position. Particularly,

Many in the humanities fear that their fields are going to suffer most [in the economic downturn]. Humanities professors are already among the lowest-paid faculty members, according to the Humanities Indicators Prototype, a new, decade-long effort to establish a database of information led by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. What’s more, nearly half of all the positions are part time — with no job security and no benefits — a situation that many educators expect to worsen.

Some may argue, in a fit of functionalism, that such a painful contraction in the demand for humanities Ph.D.’s is a necessary market correction for the oversupply of “unnecessary” degrees. As the argument goes, the academic study of the humanities is a luxury the value of which is quickly depreciating. Stanley Fish uses this reasoning to suggest that the humanities should take pride in their lack of utility:

To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good.

However, both Times readers and other fans of the humanities repudiate the notion that the humanities serve no purpose. As Jarrod Hayes at Tenured Radical writes,

The claim that the Humanities do not serve a utilitarian or policy purpose is rooted in the belief that human societies can be managed without regard for the very things that make them human. Societies, and the people within them, are influenced and shaped by their individual and collective pasts and the ideas generated within and without society cemented in poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction. Utilitarian efforts to understand and explain policy, the mechanisms of governance, and the interactions of societies cannot be undertaken independently of these humanistic elements. We in the social sciences—particularly in the study of International Relations, that most policy-oriented of the social sciences—rely on the work of the Humanities every day.

While Fish argues that the humanities are wholly useless, Hayes replies that the humanities are innately necessary and enriching to society. This pro-and-con argument is not quite novel, but the acute worsening of the job market for humanities Ph.D.s is giving it new life – and, it seems, giving more ammunition to the side that would argue the humanities cannot be justified.

When many humanities Ph.D.s cannot find jobs, and when most cannot claw their way into the tenure track in their fields, there is something to be said for attacking the way humanities departments do business. In principle, however, Hayes is right – humanities do have a use in cultivating critical thinking and cultural understanding. What remains, then, is a marginalist critique of the state of the humanities today:

  • At the graduate level, there are too many doctoral candidates competing for too few jobs. Humanities departments, who bear at least some responsibility for the careers of the students they train, can explore ways to limit enrollment, ways to improve academic placements, or ways to train and direct their students towards non-academic jobs.
  • At the undergraduate level, humanities departments are not giving students the rigorous education promised by humanities’ advocates. Many students emerge from English classes with poor writing skills, and from Philosophy classes with a poor command of logic. Worse yet, many humanities majors – superficially qualified to pursue advanced (graduate) study in the humanities – complete curricula that are lacking in rigor and are rife with grade inflation.

    At the end of the day, some quantity of humanistic education and humanities professors is probably not only good but also necessary. However, would-be defenders of the humanities might find wider support for their cause if they acknowledge the twin problems squeezing the humanities: a lack of suitable jobs for graduate students, and a mass of (former) undergrads left with the belief that “the humanities” mean easy classes with no tests, on subjects they could care less about.

    * Not surprisingly, another blogger beat me to the pun.

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