06 February 2016

Humanities the Sh*t Out of This

Humanities departments don’t just have an image problem, they are stymied by a paradox.   
Any argument for the employability of majors in history, English, philosophy, art history, classics, or the like cosies up to the premise that the goal of higher education ought to be career training, above all else. Greater knowledge and understanding is, for the humanist, worth pursuing for its own sake. Our disciplines lead to no patents and offer few insights with monetizable implications for meeting current needs. Nor should they: while some solid work in the humanities reaches a broad audience, the arc of direct market value tends towards bland truths, false commonplaces, and lucrative lies. Moreover, teaching students to excel at entry-level professional tasks defeats the goal of a liberal arts education: informed and open-ended grappling with the complex truths of human life.

Nonetheless, humanities departments need students to major in their disciplines if they are to survive, and students insist--reasonably--that the credential they earn should pay back the debt they incur to get it. Those not committed to the liberal arts (much less the specifically humanistic ones) will be quick to tell you that a humanities BA is an expensive journey to a career in fast food service. Those committed to the liberal arts may point out that humanistic study equips students with crucial critical thinking and communication skills, but there is no pithy alternative to the fast-food myth. The absence of a linear career path from these majors makes specific examples seem anecdotal to the point of irrelevance.  

The humanities disciplines didn’t used to have to make the argument.  For a while in the early and mid-twentieth century, knowledge of history, literature, and culture was the marker of a mostly elite, mostly white, class status.  A degree in history or English or the classics was a membership card for the applicant pool to corporate training programs and entry-level jobs in a variety of white collar fields.  As the number of students entering college has increased, the array of majors has grown as well, and other pipelines from the academy to the workplace have proliferated.  At the same time, the academic humanities have expanded in the last few decades to cover broader swathes of human experience, and in doing so they have jettisoned their role in shoring up existing power structures. These disciplines have turned their attention to minorities, women, previously underrepresented pockets of experience, and bottom-up narratives: a more accurate and truthful exploration of the world, but one that has diminished the complicity that made the academic humanities valuable partners in stabilizing corporate institutions.    

Humanities departments can assert their continuing relevance--but they also have good reasons not to. Preprofessional course offerings? They draw butts to seats, but not everyone wants to teach grantwriting or build coding opportunities into undergraduate research projects. Extracurricular professional experience like internships and volunteering?  Students get a lot out of such opportunities, but they may legitimately wonder why, if such activities beyond the classroom get them a job, they need to pay for a degree. Lingering remnants of cultural elitism? Well, yes: dwindling state support means that humanities programs flourish best in expensive institutions serving the already well-off students who can afford to attend them.

We can do better.  Another option:

Humanities faculty can recognize that it's skills, not majors, that employers look for. Without changing anything in the curriculum, they can teach students to recognize the capacities they are building in their humanities disciplines. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the top five skills that employers seek are not STEM-specific. Nor are they obviously pre-professional: they are skills that one needs to accomplish anything, from community organizing to building a boat to managing a household.  According to a 2015 survey of employers conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), they are

  • ablity to work in a team structure
  • ability to make decisions and solve problems
  • abiity to plan, organize, and prioritize work
  • ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization
  • ability to obtain and process information

These top five skills  are not humanities-specific either, but there is not one that isn’t improved by rigorous study in humanistic disciplines. Consider, for example, “ability to work in a team structure”--a phrase that (along with its associated buzzword “teamwork” appears in many entry level job ads.  It is meaningless out of context. “Teamwork” in an operating room differs from “teamwork” on a political campaign, which differs still from “teamwork” in one of the sports where the metaphor originates.  

Of course the humanities don’t teach deracinated “teamwork” in any formal sense.  Small-group activities are a common pedagogical strategy, but an occasional twenty-minute exercise in isolating images in The Wasteland  with two or three classmates, or even a semester-long project in researching and presenting a historical counterfactual, will hardly prepare students to  tackle consulting problems for a Big-Three firm. Yet we do teach students to fully inhabit viewpoints that differ from their own; to understand their internal logic and coherence and then to step outside them again.  We teach students that this is what it means to listen carefully. Our students get comfortable with disagreement and learn to ride it to a better understanding than they could have produced on their own. They learn to examine a phenomenon from several different competing perspectives and to gather information while living with uncertainty about which one to embrace. They get practice in synthesizing a range of views in order to arrive at their own informed course of action.  These are all capacities that are relevant to “teamwork.”

Each of these five skills can similarly be divided into component parts that students excel at in different ways; each presents ways to recast “critical thinking” in terms that are intelligible to employers, yet also help students understand their individual strengths and interests.

When students learn to recognize what they do in these terms, they gain agency. Not all students will want to work for companies that are large enough to belong to NACE, much less have a recruiting staff to fill out questionnaires about their practices. Still, knowing they have skills that are valued by such employers makes it easier for students to recognize the choices they have. Being able to talk with some specificity about the particular ways they excel within these broad categories positions them for the work they want to do. Moreover, naming and distinguishing these skills provides a framework for students to consider their priorities beyond paying down student debt and becoming financially independent. What sorts of interactions particularly energize them?  What kinds of problems do they want to solve?  What personal trade-offs are they prepared to take on in pursuit of success?  What values do they want their working life to reflect?

We in the humanities need to wrestle better with this paradox: the impossibility of asserting our relevance without validating the increasingly narrow and instrumental expectations for higher ed. We may not be able to communicate to the corporations that increasingly drive higher ed the importance of the alternative we offer to the limited values of the marketplace.  We can, however, show our students how their learning will help them both succeed within a world that needs their skills and resist the devaluation of their humanity.


  1. Ability to not split infinitives...

  2. I don't doubt that a broad based liberal arts education develops certain skills that are useful in a work environment. However, I doubt that kind of education confers sufficient vocational advantages to justify the time and expense necessary to obtain a degree. My own employer requires entry-level recruits to have either a bachelor's degree or three years full time work experience. The other day I was doing some training with a couple of new hires. One went to college the other didn't. The only difference between the two is now one has $46,000 in student loans to pay off and the other doesn't.

  3. Dennis, the key is not what your new hires are doing now. The real value of a college education will play out over time. In general, employees with degrees advance further in their careers than those without. It will be interesting to check on your two new hires in 10 years. Obviously, these two could be an exception, but if general trends hold true, the hire with the degree will see the career payoff later in life.