What Will Probably be an Ongoing Series Reporting on the (Premature, Exaggerated, and Just Wrong) Reports About the Death of the Humanities and the End of Literature as We Know It With Links

David Brooks’s 20 June 2013 op-ed piece for The New York Times, “The Humanist Vocation,” in which he declares that the humanities are in decline, has sparked a flurry of debate and response. One of these reasons for the flurry of commentary is that the issue is more complicated than Brooks allows for in his quite brief piece (and he’s simply wrong on a few points, see Michael Bérubé below). Another reason for the considerable response is that his discussion of the humanities cuts to the bone for those of us who actually work in the humanities. (Certainly for me, as will be apparent below.)

Brooks’s article accompanied a report released by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences titled The Heart of the Matter, which takes the familiar line of: the humanities have to “retool” to fit the changes presented by our networked, scary world, with its new global economy, etc. This is not a quote,[1] but for anyone who has been following the discussions about the crisis in the humanities/higher education for the last five (or thirty) years, the kind of language The Heart of the Matter employs is familiar in its generality and emptiness, along with its refusal to look at how successful the humanities have been for the last five, ten, thirty, seventy, two-hundred, one-thousand . . . years. Indeed, part of its long-term success is that the humanities teach and emphasize old school things, like reading and writing. And that, despite all claims to the contrary (and with the requisite nods to the many questions posed about reading and writing during the theory boom, as well as to Marshall McLuhan and Friedrich Kittler), reading and writing do not change all that much, and haven’t for a long time.[2] To suggest that the technological changes bombarding us are going to remake the world and the people in it—how we interact and communicate, how we understand our place in the world—is to point out the blatantly obvious. But to suggest that the incredibly slow moving institution of humanistic study needs to rapidly change to meet these “new challenges,” is both to fundamentally misunderstand how the humanities work and to misunderstand the achievements made possible by an institution that is fundamentally stable[3] (i.e., grounded upon things—reading and writing—that do not change all that much[4]). Certainly humanistic study will have to change in some ways in these hyperarchival times, but I am of the mindset that the stability afforded by the humanities also gives them incredible flexibility to respond to and reflect upon the world. If you tend not to think the humanities is incredibly capable in terms of helping us understand, comment upon, change, and, perhaps most importantly, imagine the world . . . then you clearly haven’t studied the humanities, or at least not very well.

And I guess this is the whole point. For it is not just David Brooks that is telling me that my vocation does not matter, my students do as well (which is way worse). It seems easier and easier every semester for my, say, engineering students to inform me—thank you, by the way—that my class does not matter to them, because it will not help them get the job they want. That the stuff we are doing in this class—reading poetry, writing about it—does not matter. These skills do not pertain to their lives. Okay. Sure. I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise. I’m not. In my experience, if this is your attitude, there is only like a 1% chance I’m going to change your mind. And I’m just not interesting, charismatic, personable, or smart enough to do so. I’ve tried. I know. But of course you are able to say how this class does not matter and will not matter for you imagined-engineering-student because . . . you know very little about the humanities (which is why you are here anyway!). You also don’t know much about your own life yet, really.[5] Nor the future. Nor what skills you will actually need. Nor history. Etc. In other words, you are in a unique position. You are sitting in front of me because you do not know these things yet. You know a lot, certainly, and I can only teach you so much, and perhaps you will be able to teach me far more than I could teach you. But I do know a thing or two about literature, and I do know why it might be worthwhile to study. (And I’m certainly learning more every day. It is my job after all.) If you really knew this stuff, you would not need an education, at least from me. To base arguments for or against the humanities on undergraduate enrollment (undergrad enrollment is fine, by the way) as Brooks does, or on what undergraduates think they need, or in the way that undergraduates are now almost universally treated as consumers, again misunderstands the goals of the humanities, and certainly misunderstands the very concept of education. Imagined-engineering-student, you are in my seemingly unimportant classroom for a number of reasons, but one of those is because you cannot possibly know yet how learning to critically think, to closely read, and to carefully write will help you in the future. You can’t. Please stop informing me otherwise. And that way we can get to the really fun stuff. Which is, by the way, humanistic study.

So this piece got away from me a bit, as I really just wanted to post a bunch of links, but I felt like I had to weigh in with my half-a-cent as well. So here’s the links:

Verlyn Klinkeborg followed Brooks’s with his own article, “The Decline and Fall of the English Major.”

Then Stanley Fish weighed in: “A Case for the Humanities Not Made.”

And before you read any further in the links, you must read Michael Bérubé’s piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Humanities Declining? Not According to the Numbers.”

The numbers.

Nate Silver on the numbers.

Scott Saul, “The Humanities in Crisis? Not at Most Schools.”

Robert Matz’s open letter to Garrison Keillor.

Corydon Ireland, “Mapping the Future.”

And your parents telling you that getting an English degree makes you unemployable? Guess what? They’re wrong! Jordan Weissman, “The Best Argument for Studying English? The Employment Numbers.” “Only people who don’t understand statistics would question the value of an English degree.”

But, at the end of the day, higher education and the humanities are still in crisis. Just not for the reasons that have been given. This is what Bérubé ends his piece by reemphasizing. Oh, and then there’s this.

[1] This is a direct quote from The Heart of the Matter: “Who will lead America into a bright future? Citizens who are educated in the broadest possible sense, so that they can participate in their own governance and engage with the world. An adaptable and creative workforce. Experts in national security, equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics, and language proficiency to lead our foreign service and military through complex global conflicts. Elected officials and a broader public who exercise civil political discourse, founded on an appreciation of the ways our differences and commonalities have shaped our rich history. We must prepare the next generation to be these future leaders” (Richard H. Brodhead and John W. Rowe et al, The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive and Secure Nation [Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2013], i). The language here is a bit chilling. If I thought that what I was doing in a humanities classroom was training “experts in national security” that could lead the US “military through complex global conflicts,” I would definitely rethink my vocation.

[2] Clearly this could be argued with, as can all massive over-generalizations. But the fact that there are people around today for whom ancient Greek isn’t Greek to them (i.e. they can read it, and largely because of humanities training) I hope gestures toward at least permitting me my premise. Another: if rapid technological change really does make old modes of communication obsolete (reading and writing), then William Shakespeare should be illegible to us (as would Henry James).

[3] Or at least used to be.

[4] Again, obviously reading and writing change considerably, just looking at the difference between novels by Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Pynchon would prove that, but at the end of the day they are still legible as writing. As are text messages, tweets, status updates, etc.

[5] Okay, maybe you do. I certainly did not know much in my late teens and early twenties.

39 thoughts on “What Will Probably be an Ongoing Series Reporting on the (Premature, Exaggerated, and Just Wrong) Reports About the Death of the Humanities and the End of Literature as We Know It With Links

  1. Fantastic commentary. As a collector of supposedly useless “ARTS” degrees (BA.Eng, BMus, MAMus) I can’t help but agree.
    “I’d teach children music, physics and philosophy; but most importantly music; for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys for learning”, Plato.

  2. Your link to “The Best Argument for Studying English? The Employment Numbers” is broken.

    As a long-term unemployed person with an advanced degree in the humanities, I’d like to mention one problem that is rarely addressed. The gatekeepers for most jobs are HR folks. There are people who often studied HR and are usually inclined to believe that the only way to have skills in something is to have taken a course or a major with the name of that skill.

    Although networking opportunities are available, humanities majors do miss out on jobs they’re capable of doing… and doing better than business majors. Job ads are written by people who have no clue what a humanities major can do. And if you apply anyway, you have to write a more extensive cover letter explaining how your background gave you the skills for the job. In today’s economy, each job posting is flooded with applicants and these cover letters are barely read. Resumes are scanned for keywords or date of degree and major; you don’t get the chance to explain yourself and so you’re passed over.

    I cannot complain about the skills my humanities degrees gave me. However, I am horrified to see people argue that humanities degrees are not professionally detrimental in today’s world. (Since your link to stats was not working, I couldn’t see that part of your argument.)

    The humanities cannot be helpful to one’s career if they keep you from entering that career in the first place.

  3. Great post. Thank you very much for sharing this amazing content with us. In my opinion, humanities will not disappear completely. Quite the opposite, now I notice that we become very dependent on specialisms. What I envisage is that probably not only humanities, but everything in our contemporary lives will have to be reconsidered and transformed so as to meet the needs of 21st century population.

    Kind regards,


  4. Great work. it should make all of us that has invested so much in humanities to be sad. Unfortunately there is pressure on people to go and study anything science whether they understand it or not just to get a job.I waist-ed four years try to understand what is actually science but to no avail. Like you said, not only that they misunderstood the goals of humanities, but also the real concept of education. Have you written a lot recently? well I have! and I have been crucified for that, the whole idea now is marketing. contents, sell, dolls and apple. Well I hope to come back here and rekindle hope that after-all humanities is still alive but not dead yet.

  5. You made my day! I am not college educated, but fortunately my two daughter’s are. My youngest is a History major, and although I knew she had the ability and was quite capable of majoring in English, she shied away from doing so. Personally, I can’t help but wonder if she felt unable to process the critical attributes that are so necessary for this major. Of course, as her mother, I knew better. She is an astute and objective observer of the world around her and an avid reader of several genres.
    Thanks so much for writing this encouraging article!

  6. ok i can tell you write LoL but i agree the arts are never really going to die they just adapt as i have and to say they are reflects a very narrow view of life

  7. Great post, and so true. Hate the whole specialized going to school just for getting a job routine. Whatever happened to learning how to think? Wouldn’t want to live in a world without the arts, literature and music.

  8. The humanities are equally important as science degrees. It’s not purely in terms of which degree will get you a job. Of course, the practical side of choosing which subject to study plays some part in it. But students need to learn for the love of learning, in my opinion, and not just choose the options which they think will lead them to make the most money.
    Furthermore, the line between sciences and humanities is somewhat arbitrary in a few cases. For example, I am studying for a degree in Linguistics. In the UK, where I currently live and study, linguistics is classified as a humanities degree whereas in the US, I believe it is classified as a science.
    In the UK, the government has made plans to cut funding to humanities and arts (here’s a brief piece about it: http://www.britac.ac.uk/policy/Past_Present_and_Future.cfm) in favour of science, engineering and maths. In my opinion, integrative learning is the key. I am firmly supportive of humanities.

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. I found your post very thought-provoking.

  9. I am a retired NYC school teacher who gave my students a very liberal arts education steeped in the Humanities. My son followed in my footsteps and taught for 4 years in Harlem. Now he will be leaving soon to teach and live in India. He majored in English as an undergrad. I believe the Humanities are the most important way to reach someone’s heart as well as their intellect.

  10. I hate the kind of language that piece arguing against the humanities uses. I don’t know if there’s a term for it, but it feels totally meaningless and lifeless.

    It’s really sad that so many students think the humanities are useless. If all you want to do with your life is make money and perfect a technical skill, that’s fine (really, it’s very sensible.) But without art? Life is boring as hell. We’ll always need people to write, paint and perform for that reason.

  11. Year after year my husband’s former high school English students come back to visit and thank him for being their most rigourous teacher and for properly preparing them for university. Some of them are even engineering students!

  12. My students tell me that the same thing about the Humanities as well – that it will not bring them the job they wanted. To make matters worse, the parents and students in my society value so much how well the child performs in tests and exams. As such, my students feel that since the Humanities is a difficult subject to score in (they are uncomfortable in dealing with the subjectivity and fluidity of the subject), I see an increasing trend of lesser people pursuing the Humanities as the students progress through their schooling years.

    • You are not alone. I myself cannot dare to teach humanities because I have accent and often times people focus on the accent even when one has a real point. On the other hand I have a friend who was from here and can teach humanities, but refuse to teach because of lack of excitement from the students and from some of their parents. Unfortunately everyone taking humanities want “A+” without working for it, I commend you for teaching it, The world need selfless teachers like you.

  13. Hi Brad, thanks for contributing your half-a-cent, and the links as well. Speaking as a double major in English and Art History in a family full of Economics majors, about the only positive thing I was told about my degree was that it would be good preparation for law school. Needless to say, I was able to secure an excellent paying job about a month after graduating and shut them up (although now I’m off to Europe for a year of backpacking and now they’re questioning my judgment on that–surprise!) As you so succinctly put it, the humanities will probably have to change a little bit to keep up with society’s paradigmatic shift in terms of creating and digesting information, but it really is a very, very, fundamental discipline and I have no doubt that regardless of what sort of technology comes out, there will still be a use for studying English lit. Let’s just hope that society recognizes this utility as well.

  14. I’m just here to point out that, while I agree that the humanities and art are necessary, I find that degrees in the subjects are indeed not as useful. As someone whose highest level of English literature education was AP Lit (I remember those as being higher quality than whatever I took for my humanities credits), I can still discourse on literature reasonably well. I’m the only member of my family without an advanced English Lit degree. I’m also one of the two out of five who currently is full-time employed, which forces me to conclude that the aforementioned degrees have possibly limited vocational value.

  15. The Humanities provide a wonderful base from which to launch one’s career. My undergraduate degree (English) opened doors to other disciplines. It is often thought that if you pursue History, English and so on, you are destined for the classroom. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have progressed to a satisfying career in the Hospitality Sector and am now pursuing further graduate studies. I would add though that the success you gain will not be only through your program of study, but, how you market your skills and competencies in this competitive era. As an individual, your personal brand is an important piece of the pie.

  16. Great article regarding the future of humanities. I too believe that in order to ensure the humanities a place in the academic world in general, one must try and reconfigure it. As a personal opinion, the “human experience” has come a long way, and it still has a long way to go. The reason for why I have chosen to study humanities is that we do not know for sure what it means to be human. And how can you try and explore other things when you do not know yourself?

  17. The humanities may not be the “trade” that gets you hired, but they are the invisible processor in your brain that makes you an innovative and engaged employee. The way we think affects the world and the humanities affect the way we think.

  18. Great piece. As a current humanities student, I take a bit of crap from friends who are taking the either hard science or financial (money-grabbing) route. However, there is a severe lack of people today who are able to able to properly communicate complex ideas, which is exactly what the humanities aim to accomplish. We can’t deny the necessity for diversified skill sets. For every tech genius and number cruncher out there, we need someone else able to connect it all and see the big picture.

    Not to mention that in today’s world, certain types of knowledge become obsolete within a matter of years. Critical reading and writing, on the other hand, are valuable in virtually every situation, professional or otherwise. That’s why humanities are so important, and why more schools should focus on teaching their students how to think rather than just how to build a job resume.

  19. Pingback: Why Humanities Matter in a STEM-Oriented World « adventures of a wanna-be writer

  20. A great post. I had a history lecturer who used to get quite worked up about people doing “proper” degrees who commented on humanities being not worth it or easy. “Easy? I bet none of you think my class is easy! You tell friends of yours who say that they can come and do any of your essay assignments any time they like and I’ll mark them. That’ll show them if its easy or not”.

    A few years later when I was working in admin at an accounting firm a group of the directors were complaining that their grads had no report writing skills. After about 5 minutes of round table discussion (which I was a bit flabbergasted by) I pointed out that they’d hired accounting grads, who while being good with numbers, would clearly have no writing skills. If they’d wanted people who could write, they should’ve hired humanities grads. It was lovely to prove my lecturer right.

  21. Great post and links. I kind of wished you spent a little bit more time though rebuking your imaginary student. I especially liked the idea that the stability of humanities is one of their biggest strengths and sources of flexibility.

    And I agree with you that in today’s world, being able to think critically and to write persuasively are some of the most important qualities of a prospective employee.

    On an unrelated note, the whole ‘humanities are dead’ debate reminds me of people who say they never read fiction because ‘it’s not true’.

  22. What the UK has to contend with is a number of graduates that increasingly exceeds the number of work opportunities available for them. This is especially so in a recession. The public and third sectors are rapidly shrinking. But this is no guarantee that things will be much different if and when the economy picks up. See my final comment below.
    I sympathise with the comment from bumblepuppies. I find myself downplaying my education on my CV, while emphasising my vocational experiences. While it makes me sad that most employers express little or no interest in skills developed in an academic setting, I can at least console myself that an education is a good thing in itself, and that even if today’s climate denigrates its intrinsic worth in a drift towards economic measures, this drift cannot take away the value of an education to a person once it’s there.
    As for the future, I might be heretical in saying this, but talk of decline in the humanities in the face of mercantilism has long been part of its make-up. Fritz Ringer’s account of the declining elites in Germany comes to mind, as does Weber’s charting of the ascent of bureaucracy. Furthermore, in the UK at least, what educators forget is that the amount of humanities education available has enjoyed a collosal expansion programme initiated at the end of the nineties by the then Labour government. This expansion is bound to be attacked by its detractors. It will be interesting to see if the humanities move into a new boom cycle after the current bust.

  23. Pingback: What Will Probably be an Ongoing Series Reporting on the (Premature, Exagerated, and Just Wrong) Reports About the Death of the Humanities and the End of Literature as We Know It With Links | degreecoachingco

  24. I want to point out that just because one does not major in humanities subjects doesn’t mean they don’t like them. I like literature and philosophy as much as the next person but wouldn’t waste an entire college education on just a humanities major.

    Remember that college is very expensive. And any STEM/Finance student will tell you that humanities classes ARE a lot easier than their major classes. They are usually taken as electives to fulfill major credits and to lighten the workload of a semester schedule. To be fair, a degree in any subject doesn’t guarantee you a job, but keep in mind that when people invest in a college degree, they take a few things into consideration.

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