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.

If you have a certain sort of question, then studying the Humanities is really the only option.

downloadThe other day, I was reading this fairly mediocre article on why studying the humanities is important, and then I clicked through to a link on the bottom of the page that led to a previously published article that had already dissected and discarded the claims of the first article I’d read.

My favorite part was this:

But if you read the people making cases for them, you begin to suspect things are actually pretty dire. If the people making a case for the Humanities can’t make a case for the Humanities, the discipline is really up a creek. Chug through the 92 pages and you come out grasping nothing in your hand.

There are numerous studies that imply that drinking a glass of red wine daily is good for your long-term health. But that is not why you drink a glass of wine. If what you are really interested in is long-term health, the thing to do is go for a jog and eat an onion sandwich, take three vitamins and go to bed.

That’s exactly right. If what’s important about the humanities is that they teach you critical reasoning, then just teach that. A class in logic would be more useful than one in English. If what’s useful is that they make you articulate, then don’t teach history–teach rhetoric and debate.

The Humanities are not important because of the skills they give you. Those skills can be acquired elsewhere, much more cheaply. They’re interesting because, well, what else is there?

If you want to gain traction on any kind of question of value, then all you have is the humanities. If you want to know what beauty is, then all you can do is study art (although I figure that science will at least crack aesthetics someday =). If you want to know how to live your life, then all you can do is study moral philosophy and literature. If you want to learn about how people should relate to each other, then you study political philosophy.

It kind of sucks, because the humanities don’t offer much in the way of answers. There are no answers. That’s exactly why these questions can’t be analyzed by science. And yet, and yet, these are all questions that you need to answer, if you’re going to live in the world. Refusing to answer them is not an option. You either, in some way, address the basis for how a person should live, or you simply accept the answers that society has given you. It’s an impossible trap.

If you can get by without studying the humanities, then that’s great. I see no special reason to encourage people to study them. But if you have a certain sort of need, then studying them is really the only option.