“The humanities aren’t totally useless.” Well, the useless ones are

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From The Daily Beast, “The humanities aren’t totally useless after all.”


The typical justification for the humanities is that they foster critical thinking, awareness, a historical context, etc.  Which are true, I guess.

Inside Higher Ed takes a similar stance:

We would be the last to argue that traditional ways of valuing the humanities are not important, that studying philosophy, literature, and the fine arts do not have a value in and of themselves apart from the skills they teach. We also recognize that the interests of the corporate world and the marketplace often clash with the values of the humanities. What is needed for the humanities in our view is neither an uncritical surrender to the market nor a disdainful refusal to be sullied by it, but what we might call a critical vocationalism, an attitude that is receptive to taking advantage of opportunities in the private and public sectors for humanities graduates that enable those graduates to apply their training in meaningful and satisfying ways.

The trouble with this stance, and my own in a previous post about more people going into the humanities since the Crash, is that we have no real firm definition of “humanities.”

What’s the difference between the average BS in physics grad from University of Chicago vs. the average physics grad from Penn State? Whatever it is, it is way smaller than the difference between the two average BA in English grad from Chicago vs. Penn State. (Of course I am aware that individuals may be better or worse.)

Similarly, American Studies is, I think, considered a humanity just as much as German Philosophy, but I’m sure you can appreciate the difference. If I was an employer anywhere or a graduate program in anything, I’d look more seriously at Candidate B and… not at all seriously at Candidate A.

Hence the problem with the debate: it’s missing the distinction between “intellectual pursuits” and “easy majors.” Articles like those in Inside Higher Ed are really focused on the value of rigorous humanities students (in good schools) i.e. the former; articles decrying grade inflation and the general unemployment among the liberal arts grads are talking about the latter.

But you’ll see that distinction rarely made. Which is why Inside Higher Ed is defending something that doesn’t need defending; while Guaranteed Student Loans create a demand that shouldn’t exist.

Until we have an easy way of distinguishing between these groups during the debate about “the humanities”, then most of the debate is pointless posturing; ironically, training in the humanities would correct that. 

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16 Responses to “The humanities aren’t totally useless.” Well, the useless ones are

  1. MrBoom says:

    I wrote a comment on your previous post defending the humanities, but then I realized that the only experience I have with them is within the philosophy department. And only at my university, which is a small private Christian one. Maybe at other universities, the philosophy students really are all feel-good hippies and they really do wear party hats and hold hands singing “Kumbaya.”

    But I would still maintain that, so long as the student keeps his grades up and stays out of trouble, their options are open. The American Studies major (WTF is American Studies by the way? Is it like American History?) can take a couple of biology and chemistry classes, do some volunteer work, buy the MCAT questions from test-prep companies, and he’s set to go in a new career as neurosurgeon.

    Perhaps the difference is in the quality of students? Maybe many of the people who go into the humanities do not expect to do any work and that’s why they choose it? That has not been my experience at all, but like I said before, I haven’t had that much variation. If that is the case, then recommending them to choose another major is not the answer; the question is their laziness. They would fail an “harder” major, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they fail their “easier” one.

    And why is the unemployment rate for Architecture so high? I would have thought was the most practically useful of them all (have people started constructing buildings without blueprints?).

  2. mthompson says:

    FWIW, at UChicago I believe a Physics major is a BA, not a BS. I’m not sure, but I think this is tied to the university’s way of branding itself as the last defender of the holiness of the liberal arts/humanities. Sure, you can get one of those hard science or econ degrees if you want, but we’re still going to call it a BA because those Core Curriculum liberal arts courses we made you take just made you _that much_ of a well-balanced humanist.

  3. Elisabeth says:

    “Similarly, American Studies is, I think, considered a humanity just as much as German Philosophy, but I’m sure you can appreciate the difference. If I was an employer anywhere or a graduate program in anything, I’d look more seriously at Candidate B and… not at all seriously at Candidate A.”

    That’s an interesting take, and one that I had not fully thought out before.

    But you first need to distunguish between employers and graduate programmes. You are talking like they are the same thing, and they most certainly are not. You can usually find some grad programme, somewhere, that is willing to take your money. Employers are a lot harder, as they actually have to hire someone who will provide them with value.

    When it comes to employers, is there any evidence for your statement? My experience, as a History/Politics grad, is that most employers simply want to know that you have a degree. Then they want to know about your internships, the events you organised, who you know…

    And, if what you’re saying is true, how much is because of the major and how much of it works as a signal to potential employers? If it’s simply that studying, say, German philosophy signals that you are almost certainly more intelligent and harder working than, say, American Studies (I have no idea what that is) majors, then what’s the point of the major itself?

  4. Elisabeth says:

    I’d love to know what people think about this post about education in the sciences:

    “In that case, if you are a smart but not brilliant student in STEM, you might tell yourself until you are blue in the face that you must study STEM to be employable and have real skills. But the reality is that you will flunk out or come close to it, or be lucky to get by with Cs. Moreover, at that level of performance, it is not clear that you are actually acquiring STEM skills, just at a C level compared to an A level.

    “Pedagogically, it doesn’t work that way. The bottom end students wind up not really learning anything, because the class moves at a pace and in a way that they can’t keep up with, even to get a lesser grounding in it…

    “…From the standpoint of a student who says, I don’t want to be an engineer or research chemist or computer scientist – I want to get a strong grounding in those fields, in a genuinely technical way – but I want to be a manager or someone with a non-technical job that requires interaction with the technical fields – how do I do that?

    “At the top range of universities, the STEM departments simply don’t have a place for you. The university might require that the departments offer general ed courses – and so you will be offered, “rocks for jocks.”

    “It won’t be technical; it will be gee-whiz, without the math. What you are looking for is a technical track designed for a student who is Yale quality in history or philosophy, but who needs something more like State College for technical skills. That would be the ideal mix – but there is little incentive for the STEM departments to create such a thing.”


    • RatB says:

      Speaking as a C level science student currently fighting through an A level school, this jives with my observations. I think that the grading curve is fucked.

      Assuming everyone is like me (I appreciate they’re not), getting anything less than an 80 in a science course means that you didn’t learn anything and got by deducing answers based on knowledge from other courses that you actually understood.

      Mastery is worthwhile, haphazard regurgitation is not.

      • Jay says:

        That will get you through year 1 (maybe 2) of the program, but if your major field is STEM, you’ll be hosed next year. The stuff you’ll be asked to do then will draw heavily on what you should be learning now, and you’ll either master the old material by repetition or flunk out.

        You can get through a humanities degree this way, because the humanities are much less cumulative than the sciences.

  5. thestage says:

    Of the many many problems with integrating the humanities into the inanities of whatever the hell the market pretends to be today, I’ll just pick one: everyone in the world already thinks they are an expert in the humanities. If you do not know mathematics, or biology, or even psychiatry, you know you don’t know those things, no matter how otherwise idiotic and/or narcissistic you are. If you don’t know about enzymes in the pancreas, then you don’t know about enzymes in the pancreas. 20th century debates in epistemology? Ehh, you can trick yourself into pretending you know how to think. Try to get into a debate about art with your engineer friend–you could have a PhD, he’s not going to cede a third of an inch. That’s another way of saying you can trick yourself into thinking the guy applying for your job doesn’t know anything.

    Part of it is systemic: if you want to talk about anything that isn’t first quarter earnings, you are eventually going to say something that is going to get you labeled a communist. Most of the things people flail about in real life, form the personal level to the national level, are things that people without a healthy education in the humanities have no business passing judgment on. That’s why our political debates always center on what to do with gays and fetuses, and why every politician is eager to prove to you that he is just as dumb as you are.

    • Elisabeth says:

      The first paragraph of this is brilliant.

      The second…not so much. I understand what your end point is, but the route you use to get there is so tortuous and full of non sequiturs that I simply can’t accept it.

    • sunshinefiasco says:

      I’ll throw my support behind the first paragraph as well, and add the fact that mocking the humanities/social sciences (and we deserve some mocking) over the last 30 years has taught people that anyone can know that stuff if they just think about it. (And that all answers are right in some way/the “that’s not inherently wrong, you just aren’t viewing it in its’ context” argument.)

      I’m currently teaching in Asia, which means that I am regularly exposed to a few hundred people who came here (from the US, Canada, UK/Ireland and South Africa, primarily) with non-Ed degrees to teach English, and we are regularly in apartments, bars, orientations or official seminars discussing cultural differences/relativism.

      There are few things that are more infuriating than having to play along with the people who spout long, considered opinions about “Why Koreans do/are X”. We’ve all been here around the same amount of time, so our opinions are equal.

      I majored in International Studies and Human Rights at a internationalism-focused school that produced a UN Secretary General. You majored in Drama at a mid-level university in England (or in whatever in wherever). If you want to have an honest discussion, let’s do it, but I don’t want to hear the theory you made up about how the (blog you read on the) Korean War explains why people slurp their soup and push more than most other folks on the subway, or how you’re pretty sure a lot of parents here just don’t really care about their kids.

      P.S. The people who hire both of us see no difference in who might be more culturally adaptable/capable of playing along with local rules or understanding our roles/positions as foreigners here. They see two non-Ed degrees and no TESOL experience. They also complain to no end about foreigners who make no effort to understand/acclimate themselves to Korean culture. I’m hoping it’ll be different when I get into the US job market, but unless I go into international education/doing study abroad programs, I won’t hold my breath.

  6. sunny day says:

    Having done an American Studies degree (half interesting American history, half reading a lot of Greil Marcus, presumably because my professor read it 20 years before), I’m pretty sure that most employers don’t give a flying fuck about your major, unless it directly impacts what you’re going to do at your job. They do care about which school you went to–a degree in basket weaving from Harvard is obviously worth more than a degree in philosophy from, say, one of the SUNY schools.

    The worst value-for-money degree I think I’ve heard of had to be a friend who spent time and money on a master’s in international security, and the final exam had to do with Islamic terrorists nuking Saudi Arabia, of all places. Man, why do terrorists always fuck things up for themselves, huh? It was useful in getting him a job, though, so I lied when I said it was poor value for money. It was just dumb.

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  8. Jay says:

    I’ve read enough german philosophy to not be impressed by it. The big secret seems to be Capital Letters.

    • thestage says:

      you do realize that nouns in German are properly capitalized, right? It gets anglicized in translation, but most editors leave the important concepts and terminology capitalized.

  9. thethirdman says:

    A good point.

    One of my majors was philosophy, and I really got a lot out of it. However, I was also extremely lucky in having an excellent professor. I can imagine that it matters quite a lot how good your teacher is in any field, but I suspect it matters even more when you are dealing with subjects that do not have clearly defined problem sets and methodologies.