Thoughts on life after the PhD
Maybe it’s just me, but the New York Times seems to be almost gleeful in its recent reporting of the crisis in American universities, in particular the crisis of humanities departments. In the wake of SUNY Albany’s shocking decision to cut French, Russian, theater, and classics, Stanley Fish responded with a piece entitled “The Crisis in the Humanities Officially Arrives.”
I respect and applaud Fish for drawing attention to SUNY Albany (in particular the sneaky, underhanded way that they announced their decision, which seems to be commonplace nowadays when it comes to slashing whole departments), and for calling for a more practical approach to saving humanities departments everywhere. But I have a few quibbles.
First, “officially arrives”? I’d say this crisis arrived a long time ago. Or at least that it’s been brewing for years and has only been somewhat exacerbated by our current economic problems.
Second, Fish’s claim that humanities departments “do not earn their keep.” Can we stop perpetuating this myth, please? As has been pointed out elsewhere, most humanities departments–in particular literature and writing programs–do just fine economically. Granted, if more and more colleges start eliminating foreign language, arts, and writing requirements, that will change, but hopefully most universities can still see the value of teaching students to write well. Believe me, most of them need all the help they can get.
Third, the idea that “nobody really buys the argument” that humanities degrees are useful. Yes, invoking Enlightenment notions of a more well-rounded individual probably isn’t going to get you very far, but as has been pointed out before, humanities degrees are highly valued by not only law schools and medical schools but by prospective employers–employers who value good writing skills, critical thinking ability, innovation, and a more varied educational background. I’ll admit that super-specialized degrees like Byzantine art and Balinese puppetry may impede your progress in job hunting, but don’t be so quick to lump ALL humanities degrees into the realm of completely impractical and useless.
One of the first steps in the battle to save humanities departments everywhere is to debunk, or at least critically examine, many of the myths and assumptions that have surrounded the humanities for so many years. Parents (many of whom probably would have majored in dance or art if their own parents hadn’t forced them into more “sensible” fields) pass these myths down to their children, and universities reinforce them when they cut or severely limit funding for humanities departments. As Fish notes, “…it is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene. President Philip (of SUNY Albany) cries crocodile tears. Real tears are in order.”
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