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.

How can workshop be less boring?

It’s so cheesy to be into a pop-psychology book like Flow, but it really has continued to have an impact in my life. For instance, I sometimes get bored in workshop. Forgive me, but I do. I know. It’s awful. This is the reason I am at Hopkins, and here I am, waiting for it to be over. But Flow made me realize two things: A) everything is boring if you’re not paying attention; and B) everything is boring if you don’t put part of yourself into it.

Normally, in workshop, I sort of half pay attention and wait for moments in which I can insert the comments that I came up with when I was reading the story before class. But when I am conducting my own workshop, I hate that! What I most want to happen is for the students to actually respond to each other’s comments and think about what works and doesn’t work for the story. So in yesterday’s workshop, I actually made an effort to listen to what people were saying, to understand their point, and to try to speak whenever I had something to say that was directly related to what they’d said.

I am sure that the end result was only marginally different from how I normally act, but I did enjoy workshop more and pay attention more.

I think that somewhere in here is the secret to active listening. I am awful at every form of listening: I can’t tolerate lectures, readings, and podcasts. But there has to be some way in which I can incorporate what I am hearing into my thought processes in a way that keeps me involved.


cover            I think this what happens when I read books. I am a great reader. And I think it’s because I don’t hold myself distant from the book. I engage in active conversation with it as I read. For instance, I recently read another amazing book: Made To Stick, by Dan and Chip Heath. It’s a book about how to communicate ideas in such a way that they, well, stick in peoples’ minds.

The book was extremely unsettling!

For my entire life, I’ve prided myself on my communication skills. I’m not talking about fiction, I’m talking about my blog posts, newspaper articles, journal articles, white papers, speeches, presentations, etc, etc.

Reading this book made me realize that I don’t have the first idea about how to appeal to people. The book is actually the first example of its own effectiveness, because its ideas are very sticky. The book’s schema is that when you convey information, it should be in the form of: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional stories. And then each chapter unpacks each of those words and examines, oh, what do we mean by “simple” or “credible” and includes tons upon tons of examples of great messages.

It was bit humbling to realize how little I know about something so basic. We devote so much thought to how to argue a case in an academic paper, and so little thought towards basic communication.

Anyway, I am already trying to reorient my communication strategy a bit. For instance, I started this blog post with what I hope was an unexpected and concrete admission about workshop and yesterday I did my best to summarize, in a simple way, what this blog is about.

Obv it’s all a work in progress, though.