Reframing the Humanities

The humanities have certainly been in the press a lot this summer.  Are the humanities in crisis?  Is the crisis in humanities manufactured?  Is the decline the result of, as David Brooks suggests, our traditional focus having been been debased by changing educational trends and political correctness? What is our disciplinary way forward in these troubled times of degraded educational standards, and economic reductionism?  Are the humanities, in fact, the neglected moral core of our nation, which need to be nurtured and supported by university administrators who simply don’t understand the nature and impact of our important contributions?

Well, regardless of whether or not the humanities are in “crisis”, I certainly do think there are serious problems in the humanities that demand our attention, and I think they can be reduced to the fact that what we teach is not understood in concrete terms, and therefore our contributions are not widely valued.  I believe we need to address this concern head on. As an example of this, in 2012, Brown reported that their humanities professors make on average $30,000 less than colleagues in other departments doing the exact same job.  This discipline linked disparity is pretty much known and accepted in universities across the board. Administrators argue that academics in fields like business, tech and the sciences can get jobs outside the university setting so they make their academic salaries more competitive, and ours remain low, even if we are doing the same university level work.  This indicates a clear perception that humanities professionals are unable to get jobs outside the university, that our skill sets are worth less, and so it’s acceptable to pay us less.  This is not OK.  Really, it is not.  But, it’s is justified by both humanities professors and administration by the idea that working in the humanities is a labor of love, and that because our discipline is not seen to contribute to the wider economic life of this nation, that it is perfectly reasonable for us to accept lower wages.

By the same logic, it is also perfectly acceptable for interns working in the humanities trying to gain professional experience to be expected to work for free. I guess we’re supposed to subsist on our highly developed sense of moral superiority and enhanced cultural capital.  I’m sorry, but smugness does not put food on the tables of my colleagues or my students.  Besides, to expect us all to work for reduced wages or for free seems to me to be based in the kind of elitism that does not serve our academic institutions in general, and which certainly puts the general public off of embracing the humanities.  Sure you’ll work for free if a trust fund keeps you from needing any actual professional experience, but for many of us, this pursuit has long ceased to be a rich person’s hobby.   Arguments which center around preserving the humanities merely because they are part of our academic and cultural heritage is, to me, insulting to our enterprise.

We need to start sending the clear message that humanities professionals are skilled, that our skill sets are marketable and that they contribute to the economic life of the nation.  If we don’t do this, not only will we and our students continue accepting second rate treatment and low pay, the worse possibility is that we will not survive much needed curricular reforms that focus on competency based learning and concrete, measurable objectives. I think it’s time that we start promoting in very real, specific terms the ways in which training in the humanities absolutely impacts the bottom line, and we need to not find this to be a degrading or demoralizing exercise. Design, aesthetics, communication, diversity training, writing skills, research skills, and the formation of ethics are just a few examples of ways in which the humanities directly contribute to innovation and income generation.  People get hired because they know how to do these things! We need to champion these abilities, we need to know our self worth, and demand recognition for the training we provide.  To accomplish this we will first start needing to reevaluate what we as humanities professionals do, possibly starting with ourselves as academic professionals, and we will also need to think strategically about how we relate to the world outside academia.

This summer, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences released a report called The Heart of the Matter: Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive and Secure Nation. Ostensibly, this report was designed to reinforce the importance of the humanities and the social sciences to the cultural life and economic prosperity of the country. It’s certainly a vigorous defense, but to my mind it still feels somewhat sentimental and abstract, even noting that the benefit of a Liberal Arts education is not to be found in training for specific jobs, but in nurturing a spirit of inquisitiveness and “long term qualities of mind.” How is this convincing to either employers or students? Maybe we need to focus on what we DO train people for in very concrete ways.

Here are some possible suggestions:

1.  Let’s start building direct alliances with industry at the personal and departmental level.  Innovation, creativity and critical ability are areas in which we excel, arguably much more so than our STEM colleagues.  Diversity education, communications abilities and specialized cultural knowledge are highly valued in the corporate world. These are our areas, and they are important.  We should work within our local communities to determine what employers need, and then communicate back to them what skills our training provides.  We should also build humanities initiatives which insist that interns are paid for the contributions they make within the context of industry (whenever possible), just as interns in other fields are.  As one small example, many of the skills which a humanities curriculum emphasizes are frequently reiterated within industrial contexts in the form of corporate training and professional coaching.  It seems odd that we are not explicitly building more relationships in this area. The same can be said for so many fields; design, marketing, health care to name a few. We can also start on campuses by building relationships with colleagues in business and law departments, expanding the curriculum and providing innovative joint offerings.

2.  We need to start to emphasize skills, not content.  Let us make sure that students understand explicitly what practical skills they are gaining from our courses, and then get those skills on resumes. This means we, as educators, need to be able to articulate what transferable skills a person can gain from, say reading Milton or Joyce.  How about reading comprehension, analysis, critical thinking? What can we do with film studies and art history? How about visual literacy, and understanding basic principles of aesthetics. At an undergraduate level maybe we can consider our presentation of humanities content as case studies which will help to develop particular skill sets rather than thinking of content mastery as an end in itself. As a bonus, they will still get the content.

3.  Let’s do a little rebranding.   This means that we need to think of ourselves as scholars in a different way.  As scholars we would do well to stop identifying so deeply with our pet subject matters and think about the skills that we possess, and encourage our students to do so as well.  How are we relevant?  How can we envision humanities degrees as professional degrees?  This doesn’t always need to be the goal, but we should be able to demonstrate this sort of flexibility when called to do so.

4. As academic professionals we need to be forward thinking, not conservative, and be open to learning new professional skills ourselves so that we can better help our students to be more adaptable.  We, as scholars and teachers, need to engage with the world around us, not reject it. Let’s face it, we tweedy types are not always very good at projecting an image of worldliness or even competence outside academia. We need to be open to gaining new abilities, maybe by occasionally learning new software packages or simply updating our own research skills.  If we want to promote lifelong learning and a spirit of inquiry, and we should be at the forefront of any lifelong learning initiatives, we would do well to start with ourselves as professionals.  Most people in industry update their skills and engage in professional development all the time and in fact are expected to do so. Humanities professors enjoy being “the expert”, the “sage on the stage”.  It would probably do us well to abandon that persona and the professorial mantle once in awhile and embrace beginner’s mind. If we want our students to be adaptable we should lead by example and get more tools for our belts. Of course we are all overworked already, but it takes less time and effort than you think to learn a simple new skill.

Changes are coming.  There are refreshing moves toward curricular reform that will help genuinely prepare students for the workforce, and that will help returning students prepare to transition to a new economy by focusing on skills and competencies.  As humanities professionals, we need to change the framework of this discussion away from preservation of knowledge and we need to stop using language that reinforces the notion that the humanities lack utility. I think it’s time that we get out there and make the case for humanities scholarship without recourse to moral arguments, sentiment and tradition.  We need a forward thinking campaign that puts the humanities at the heart of a vibrant, innovative economy.  But before we can make this case to others, it means we need to change how we look at ourselves. That won’t be comfortable for many, but it may be necessary and ultimately strategic.

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Online Educational Specialist