Thoughts on life after the PhD
Hi there. You might think it odd that I’m choosing to express my outrage over the gradual, nationwide liquidation of humanities departments by writing YOU a letter. Wouldn’t it make more sense to address my complaints to the universities themselves? Well, yes and no.
I’ve done my fair share of raging at university administrations. They deny tenure to people who obviously deserve it and make up wacky reasons for the denial. They keep the whole tenure process shady and secretive. They ax whole departments without so much as a warning phone call. They repeatedly fail to respond to student and faculty grievances. So no, they’re definitely not innocent here.
But in the end, parents and high school seniors, you’re the ones who make decisions about which departments survive and which ones get dissolved. When SUNY Albany made its recent decision to cut French, Italian, Russian, classics, AND theater all at once…when USC decided it didn’t need a German department…when the University of Toronto dissolved its comparative literature department…well, they kind of did it because of you. Because there weren’t enough undergraduate majors in these departments, and the increasingly profit-is-everything university system decided the costs weren’t worth the benefits.
I’m not saying to you, high school seniors, that you should be forced to major in French or Italian just to keep the humanities afloat. I’m not saying to you, parents, that you should refuse to pay for any degree other than a humanities one (though that would be a nice change). But as someone who’s interacted regularly with undergrads for several years now, I’m getting tired of the sorts of attitudes that are directly contributing to the dissolution of humanities degree programs everywhere. Those attitudes need to stop.
In our struggling economy, the prevailing mindset among students and parents seems to be that degrees in business or engineering will land you a job immediately after you graduate from college, while degrees in language or drama are essentially fun but useless. College is expensive, why waste the money on a degree that won’t produce immediate dividends? University administrators hear these sentiments loud and clear, humanities degrees end up being classified as frivolous in a floundering economy, and out come the budget hatchets.
The irony is, as Robert N. Watson pointed out a few months ago, that classes like English literature and freshman composition keep universities afloat financially. Just because they have a smaller number of undergrad majors doesn’t mean they’re not pulling their weight (it’s horrifying to discover that SUNY dissolved five departments before even determining exactly how much money would be saved by doing so). And a recent survey of major companies revealed that, more than degrees in business, an overwhelming majority value excellent speaking and writing skills, as well as the ability to think critically and creatively–skills that will definitely be honed in a humanities major. Law schools and MBA programs also tend to look favorably on humanities degrees, which allow students to explore a wide variety of subjects instead of specializing too early.
(Like a lot of people in the humanities, it makes me kind of ill to have to “sell” my subject this way–the intrinsic value of skills such as critical thinking and effective writing should be enough to make people realize the value of a humanities degree. But if quantifiable figures can recruit more majors and save humanities departments across the country, I’ll do what I have to do. )
It always breaks my heart to meet a student in my freshman composition class who desperately wanted to major in literature or dance, but whose parents had refused to pay for anything but an accounting degree. Or to meet students who clearly had aspirations of being an artist or a historian but have completely bought into the whole “the humanities are impractical and therefore unnecessary” argument. I wonder where those students will be ten or fifteen years from now, and what kind of regrets they’ll have.
Parents, are you really willing to make the argument to your college student that the ability to think critically, write well, persuasively defend an argument, speak a foreign language, and conduct research are useless skills in their search for a job? Why must the humanities constantly be forced to defend its right to exist, simply because its successes aren’t as easily quantifiable as the math, science, and business fields?
To the students: If you’ve known for years that you want to be an engineer or a physicist, by all means major in engineering or physics. My defense of the humanities is not meant to be a condemnation of non-humanities fields. But don’t choose to be an engineer or a physicist solely because you think that a humanities degree is impractical or useless. And parents, don’t pressure your kid into majoring in something they have no passion for. It’s a recipe for misery later in life.
Parents and high school seniors, the future of the humanities in universities really is in your hands. I know that times are tough and money is tight. Which is exactly why we’re going to need a lot more college graduates who can think, speak, and write effectively about the challenges that face us, and in doing so effect real change. Humanities degrees can give you those abilities. Don’t write them off too quickly.
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