The problem with majoring in the humanities is that you’re getting an education that’s fundamentally pre-professional

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationI just finished teaching a class where I made students read the first chapter of Made To Stick, which is a phenomenal book on communicating your ideas. After we discussed it, I told them that they really ought to go out and read it on their own, because reading that book made me aware of a way of communicating that I had never recognized as something that I could and should be able to do. But I also felt compelled to add that nothing they learned from the book would really be very useful to them in their college careers.

That’s because Made To Stick is solely concerned with one thing: “How can I make other people remember the things that I say?”

And that is not something that is of value in college, because the mission of college is to train kids to come up with original things to say. College is not really concerned with disseminating ideas, because its methods of communication are already so efficient and so well-established. Academics communicate using conferences and journals, and they communicate using pre-existing forms and types of language that are fairly well-defined. To a certain extent, a compelling presentation is distrusted, because there’s a suspicion that it’s being used to obscure the trueness of the idea.

Being a good communicator is never useless, but it is much less useful in academic environments than it is in other contexts.

And it made me pretty depressed to think that students are being trained in skills that they won’t need when they leave college, and that they’re not learning the skills that they will need.

When academics talk about the value of an education in the humanities, there’s always an essential falseness to their argument. They argue that the humanities help you lead a good life and understand your place in the universe and become more empathetic and be a better citizen and all that stuff. And maybe those things are true, but the academic has a fundamentally different relationship to the humanities than his student does. As one of my MFA classmates once remarked to me, “I’m expected to be an advocate for the humanities, but, for me, all my humanities education has been in preparation to becoming a professor: my college education in the humanities was, fundamentally, pre-professional.”

For the student, the humanities are an interesting body of knowledge. But for the academic, they’re a job skill.

The academic makes his living doing the things that he is training his students to do. And the education he gives is a pre-professional one: it obviously makes tons of sense to write that fifteen page paper on the treatment of Islam in Moby Dick if you hope to someday make a living by writing fifteen-page papers on X element of Y text.

Almost none of the academic’s students, though, are going to be paid to conduct original thinking in the humanities. And the crisis of the humanities is that the system doesn’t take that into account.

Historically, there were only three kinds of higher education–priestly, technical, and managerial–and they were all pre-professional. For example, if you were a middle-class person  in 19th century Britain, you could’ve gone to Oxford to become a priest, or to some medical college to become a doctor, or to Sandhurst to become a soldier.

To a large extent, these divisions have carried over into the modern day. When you’re in college, you can major in an applied science (engineering or pre-med), or something ‘practical’ (communications, business, economics, etc), or in something more abstract and intellectual (physics, math, history, cultural studies, etc.)

Generally speaking, the applied sciences and the practical majors seem to have pretty clear missions: they try to teach you the actual job skills that you will someday use in your the job that you hope to get once you graduate from college.

Math and the natural sciences have a slightly fuzzier mission in that their aim is to educate you to be a scientist or a mathematician. However, most people who major in Physics are not going to do original work in physics. Most people who major in Math are not going to discover new mathematical theorems. But much of this existential confusion can be ignored because the natural sciences also give you some fairly practical skills. If you majored in math, you can work on Wall Street. If you majored in biology, you can go to med school. And so on.

The real problem comes in with the humanities. There too, the aim is clear: to give their students the tools to extract original interpretations from texts (with the definition of ‘text’ changing depending on the given discipline). The problem is that very few jobs utilize these tools. Being able to draw meaning out of an ambiguous text is really helpful if you’re a scholar or a priest, but it’s not so helpful when you’re trying to make a career in human resources. In most jobs, the texts are just not that ambiguous (or if they are, they should be ignored, because they’re purposefully written in a way that’s vacuous). That’s why so many English majors end up in law school: it’s one of the only profession that requires textual analysis.

So people in the humanities are reduced to arguing that the ability to conduct textual analysis will result in positive side-effects: humanities majors will be more articulate, more empathetic, more aware of their place in the universe.

The problem, though, is that these claims ring false, because the way in which the humanities are taught makes it clear that none of the above are part of its primary aims. If we cared about making our students more articulate, we wouldn’t have them write jargon-filled papers about the tortured interpretation that they’ve coaxed out of Hamlet–instead, we’d make them read Made To Stick, and then we’d force them to find a way to convey (in a clear and engaging and ‘sticky’ fashion) some of the current thinking on Hamlet. If we wanted them to be more aware of their place in the universe, then instead of asking them to figure out, in the abstract, what Plato might’ve meant, we’d ask them to write personal essays on what Plato makes them think about with regards to how they live their own lives. If we wanted to teach them to read and enjoy literature, then we wouldn’t focus (as English classes so often do) on lesser-known or less-traveled parts of the canon (works that it’s easier to write about because fewer academics have picked them over). Instead, we’d make them read Middlemarch and Moby Dick and we’d try to teach them to experience those books as things that are vivid and alive (rather than as corpses that we must dissect using our superior intellects).

It’s not that I don’t think that the humanities are worthwhile. I definitely do. It’s just that I don’t think literary analysis is the only way (or even the best way) for a non-academic to experience the humanities. I’m not one of those people who has any problem with literary analysis. I’ve read plenty of academic writing in the humanities (well, Baudrillard, Barthes, and Delany, mostly) and have found it to be worthwhile. I just don’t think it’s a particularly worthwhile skill for a person who is not going to be writing academic papers about literature.

2 thoughts on “The problem with majoring in the humanities is that you’re getting an education that’s fundamentally pre-professional

  1. Rob Cobbs

    I agree that teaching humanities students to write like humanities professors does the students a disservice. But I would suggest that the kind of textual analysis you find in the humanities is useful beyond professions requiring explicit textual analysis.

    Most applied and practical educations are reductive: they teach you how to model the world by stripping it down to the moving parts with which you are directly concerned and the key drivers thereof. So in biology you model the endocrine system or the skeletal system and how the knee bone connects to the shin bone and so forth; and in economics you reduce everyone to rational actors whose actions can be predicted with math; and so forth. Sure, much of your energy is focused on perfecting (and typically complicating) the model, but it’s still a reductive practice – it’s a discipline of focused attention, separating wheat from chaff.

    The humanities (at least, as I would think of them) typically go the other way – they luxuriate in subtlety and complexity, often at the expense of reductive modeling. You spend your days figuring out how a stray word here and there build a tone, and how two ways of saying a thing that seem alike are actually different. The humanities hone your instincts for context and feel and gradual aggregation of information rather than modeling and reducing and specifying.

    This isn’t to say that the distinction is particularly clear, mind you. Certainly, there is some effort in the humanities to reduce and model. The actual academic discipline of the humanities has the same forms of modeling as other social sciences – how does one build a tone? But the object of study in the humanities is nuance. The goal is to understand, and necessarily to be sensitive to, the more ethereal subtleties of what’s going on. There’s also a strain of history, politics, and literature that’s explicitly “applied-science-y.” And in the sciences, there are also plenty of attempts to understand systems in holistic ways. All disciplines struggle with the balance between the forest and the trees.

    Precisely because this depth of focus is a persistent human problem, it seems to me that most successful human enterprises will require people who are good at each of them, as well as people who can translate between people of differing perspectives. I want the HR person who has understood human motivations through literature rather than the one who is trained in the “science” of communications. I expect the latter to understand me as a point in a bell curve and the former to treat me like a person. Every business needs someone to do analytics and someone to understand context. The humanities are where you train contextualizers.

    I’m not sure the humanities is the best vehicle for training contextualizers, but (I think because of the Germans) they are the only disciplines we have to do the job. When you think of how we ought to train people to contextualize better than the humanities, I expect you start thinking in scientific kinds of terms – how do we model and develop these kinds of skills. I’m not sure that directionless inquiry into ancillary subject-matter is really the best way to do context, but I do recognize it as a method that reliably generates people who get nuance (though I can’t speak to its success rate – people who get nuance in a useful way are much less common than people who confuse vagueness for nuance). I’m not sure where one would start if we wanted to build contextualizers from square one.

    Before I sign off, I’ll note that pretty much any logic-based criticism of this apology for the humanities is more or less unanswerable. It’s not at all clear that there is a distinction between contextualizers and analyzers, that both skills are all that necessary, that humanities education actually produces contextualizers or prepares them to usefully contextualize in life, etc. It’s more hypothesis than argument – borne from my realization that, when I’m angry at someone for not understanding something important, it’s usually because an applied/practical person is being to reductive or a humanities person is being too vague or airy, and a theory that I’m probably not just right all the time – that airy is appropriate in some circumstances and reduction in others.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Well, Robb, this is a very nuanced reply, and it’s certainly not something I’d thought about in that way before. I buy it. At least it’s a reply that addresses the worth of the core skills imparted by a Humanities education (rather than the worth of reading great books, which I think of as being something different from being educated in them). And it’s the truth that people who major in the Humanities don’t seem to do particularly poorly in the worlds of business or government. It’s not that I think the humanities are harming college students (well, at least not too much), but that I think there’s a disingenuousness in the way they’re sold to the public, and that I think if there was more clarity in mission, there’d be a better way of talking about and teaching them.

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