Higher Education

the liberal arts, humanities, and opinions

Once again we are back on this subject of the “use” of a liberal arts education, set off by this article in Salon. Blogora responds, as does Jeff Rice. The whole discussion begins with an error that equates the liberal arts with the humanities, so let’s be clear that the liberal arts also include the sciences and mathematics. If you look at a site like this one, you would discover that many liberal arts degrees have a higher median starting salary and mid-career salary than business. In fact, you would see that English beats out many more “practical” degrees in terms of earnings. If one can hack engineering or a similar kind of high-tech degree (or even one of those liberal arts sciences), then the earning potential can soar. But let’s be honest. When we’re talking about students trying to make these decisions, we are probably not talking about students who are realistically thinking about becoming engineers or scientists, right? We are talking about students who are in search of entry-level office jobs–sales, customer service, management, human resources, corporate communications, etc. And when we say “liberal arts” what is really meant in these conversations is the humanities. 

So should these students major in the humanities? Sure, maybe, if they want to. That is, why would you want a student in your history, English, philosophy, etc. program who keeps asking “how is this going to help me learn how to work in a cubicle?” Of course students rarely ask this question. Why? Because they don’t really want to work in that cubicle, right? They may feel that they need to. They may worry that they won’t get a good paying job, but that’s different from actually wanting to learn. 

I don’t think that’s the problem. Instead I think both students and their potential employers have the same difficulty with the humanities, the same problem, in a way, that I have. They are unsure of the paradigms that drive our disciplines: what questions do we ask? why do we ask them? what methods do we employ to answer them? I just finished watching one of those science shows with my kids. They both want to be physicists now because those shows communicate to them this kind of understanding about physics that many people lack in regard to the humanities. Of course none of us really understand string theory. Derrida is far easier for the typical undergrad to grasp than the mathematics of string theory. String theory is no less counter-intuitive than grammatology and has no more practical “real life” application than Lacanian psychoanalysis, maybe even less. We may complain about the cost of their supercolliders and their nonchalant mentioning that their experiments might tear a whole in the fabric of the universe but it’s nothing to worry about, and maybe physics aren’t as flush as they were back in the Cold War, space race days but, generally speaking, people recognize that physics produces knowledge, right? 

Few people major in physics, so maybe psychology is a better example. Psychology is a very popular major (second only to business according to Princeton Review), and yet psychology majors have a lower median starting income than English, history, or philosophy. So where are the New York Times articles calling for the dismantling of psychology majors? One could say that psychology is clearly a field where one needs to go to graduate school to do professional work. One could say the same of the humanities. Instead, I think the difference is that psychology is easily identifiable as a field of study that produces knowledge. Certainly many people are skeptical of psychology, just as they stare cross-eyed at theories about the Big Bang. Nevertheless, there is clearly something to stand on.

Now the valid objection is that the humanities also produce knowledge. So maybe the humanities just has a PR problem. However I think it is deeper than that. The obvious other answer is to say that we have a crisis of methodology. That’s the take that has digital humanities saving us by providing a new viable method. Setting aside the DH thing in particular, is it not reasonable to suggest that existing humanities methods (the usual theory suspects, etc.) are played out? In building new methods we can make the argument that the humanities produces knowledge about the world that has value.

In the end, the statistics would indicate that a Business major starting out nets about $40/week more than an English major. And once one reaches mid-career, that difference grows to a whopping $50/week more. The reality is that a college degree is not a magic potion. I would think one’s success has less to do with the particular name of the degree you one received then with what one actually did in college. The problem with humanities degrees is not that one can’t pursue a lucrative career upon graduation. Instead it is more likely that many students in those programs feel ambivalent about pursuing such degrees, which is partly why they didn’t major in business in the first place. Not everyone’s dream is to major in learning to write TPS reports in order to be able to afford the premium cable package and an extra night out at Applebee’s now and then. 

But that’s not to say that the humanities don’t face challenges. It’s just that the problem isn’t linking our curriculum with specific job skills so much as it is demonstrating that the work we are doing produces knowledge.

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