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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