• September 3, 2015

Can the Humanities Survive the 21st Century?

Can the Humanities Survive the 21st Century? 1

William Brown for The Chronicle

More than a decade ago, during my annual physical, I happened to have a conversation with my general practitioner about Bill Readings's instant classic, The University in Ruins (1997). I rehearsed the argument of the book and then received a surprising response. "The university is in great shape," my doctor told me. He elaborated, saying that his position as a member of Ohio State University's medical-school faculty afforded him flexible hours and a good salary, his private practice supplemented that, and most central, his studies in hypertension, sponsored by the giant drug company Pfizer, were quite lucrative.

The conversation, and the revelation that my fellow faculty member saw the university mainly as the means by which he could consult for a major corporation, had a lasting effect on my thinking and subsequent writing about higher education. I came away with the suspicion, one that I still hold today, that humanists all too often use "the humanities" and "the university" as equivalent terms. The university is no more in ruins now than when Readings published his book.

Yet the equation is ubiquitous: Witness the recent initiative, the Academy in Hard Times, announced by Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association. Feal said, "You don't need me to tell you that the academy is going through one of the most difficult periods in its history." A spokesperson for several major fields in the humanities, Feal simply seems to assume that "the academy" and "the humanities" are synonyms; as such, both are in need of protection in today's economy.

In fact, the humanities and the university are not the same. Since the 1970s, all disciplines in the humanities have suffered from budgetary shortfalls and the absence of a job market. But that's just the humanities. Ohio State recently completely remodeled its library and built a state-of-the-art recreation facility (it now seems that no university is legitimate without a climbing wall) as well as a lavish student union. Salaries for business and law professors reflect the university's valuation of its faculty members: Full professors in business make an average annual salary of $208,000; full professors of law, $180,000; and full professors in arts and humanities earn an average of $108,000. Other universities can tell similar stories: Indiana University of Pennsylvania recently built the largest dormitory in the country. The good times are rolling in higher education.

What has happened is that the center of gravity at almost all universities has shifted so far away from the humanities that the most pertinent answer to the question "Will the humanities survive in the 21st century?" is not "yes" or "no," but "Who cares?"

We need to start by asking, "If the humanities and the university are not one and the same, what are the consequences for the humanities?" If my conversation with my physician is any indication, the consequences for the humanities aren't good, and that should prompt us to ask additional questions. Most important, we need to inspect our disciplines in the context of a much longer institutional history than we typically do. For students of academe in 1910, the question—"Will the humanities survive the 20th century?"—would have been answerable. Almost everyone would have replied, "Of course." Andrew Carnegie, who famously declared that liberal-arts education fitted a college graduate for "life on another planet," would most likely have added, "Yes, but what a shame." I can only think of one person, Thorstein Veblen, who would not automatically have said, "Yes, of course." Fast-forward 100 years: No one is at all certain about the survival of the humanities.

To assess the future of the humanities, consider first the curriculum. Astonishingly (to me at least), the curriculum of 1910, while much changed, is still recognizable today. The classics are all but gone. Once Harvard and Yale eliminated Greek as a requirement in the late 19th century, student interest quickly drifted away from it. In 1907, 98 percent of students entering Yale had a prior knowledge of Greek. In 1921, just 14 years later, 50 percent of all entering students had prior knowledge, and, once at Yale, only 8 percent decided to continue to study it. The fact is that the standard curriculum remained fairly prescriptive throughout the 20th century, but as more colleges offered electives and introduced the concept of the academic major, students gradually elected not to study the humanities.

Thus the emphasis has changed significantly. A fascinating study published by Stanford University Press in 2006, tracking trends in faculty hiring in the British Commonwealth throughout the 20th century, confirms that in overwhelming terms. The study showed that between 1915 and 1995, the total number of faculty jobs in the humanities declined by 41 percent, while the total number of faculty jobs in the social sciences increased by 222 percent. The natural sciences declined by 12 percent. If shifts like that in the United States are even vaguely comparable (and I believe they are), then the humanities' share of the university pie has been shrinking for nearly a century.

The shifting social mission of the university will also contribute to the shrinkage of the humanities as we move forward. The colleges of 1910 served a tiny population—only the children of the elite. College was, in most cases, either free or relatively inexpensive, but it served no purpose in the lives of the vast majority of everyday workers. Now, a college credential of some kind is all but mandatory for any job that pays a living wage. Roughly 18 million students are enrolled, with those numbers projected to continue going up. At first glance, that might seem to bode well for the humanities, but in fact, the opposite is true. The credentials that the influx of students seek, and the colleges that grant them, would have been unforeseeable in 1910.

It would be hard to imagine a major research university being built from scratch today. More pertinent, it's becoming prohibitively expensive to attend four-year universities and liberal-arts colleges. As a result, the second half of the 20th century witnessed an explosion in the number of two-year colleges, which remain inexpensive (average annual tuition is $2,544 per year), and which ask for a much briefer time commitment from students. Community colleges are booming. In 2009, Lone Star College, a network of two-year institutions in Houston, purchased a large office building from Hewlett-Packard to accommodate its staff and some 62,000 students and growing. Columbus State Community College, in Ohio, this year reached the limits of its downtown campus and had to lease classrooms from nearby Franklin University.

The phenomenon of community colleges barely able to keep pace with growing enrollments has paved the way for the for-profit university. Although for-profits are consistently more expensive than community colleges (average annual tuition is $14,174), they have become experts at using the national financial-aid system to recruit poor students (with median family incomes of $36,000 in 2004, compared with $53,000 for community-college students). The vast majority of for-profit students attend college without paying any money out of pocket. Taxpayers subsidize them, in what continues to prove a very successful boondoggle.

These thriving new institutions have virtually no commitment to the humanities, but instead usually focus on occupation-oriented missions. Let me offer a frightening example: In 2001 the entire for-profit, postsecondary industry graduated a little more than 28,000 students with associate and bachelor's degrees in business and management, a little more than 10,000 A.A.'s and B.A.'s in the health sciences, and not a single English major. Despite the progressive expansion of the general student population, the humanities stand to lose ground steadily. The last year in which 50 percent of students graduated with B.A.'s in traditional liberal-arts subjects—English, history, languages, philosophy—was 1970, and that was higher than it had been in a while.

Let me return now to my doctor's comments about Pfizer. They speak volumes about the material base of the new university. In the economic climate of the last 40 years, traditional universities—not just for-profits—are becoming both research-and-development labs and vending sites for multinational corporations. The state of affairs bears most directly on universities in the public sector, as documented in Gaye Tuchman's meticulous and depressing ethnographic study, Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University (University of Chicago Press, 2009). Since the 1970s, public higher education has ceased to be considered a civic responsibility and has become another kind of entity. James Duderstadt, president of the University of Michigan from 1988 to 1996, acerbically characterized the trend during his tenure: "We used to be state-supported, then state-assisted, and now we are state-located." He's right. Today the University of Michigan receives about 8 percent of its operating budget from the state.

Thus universities have had no choice but to function increasingly as corporations and to form partnerships with corporations, and this turn of events fundamentally alters their institutional dynamic. Research was the first to feel the effects. The Bayh-Dole Act in 1980 stipulated that federally financed research done by faculty members that results in patents belongs not to the professors but to the universities that employ them. Of course, the legislation is only relevant to applied sciences—areas like hypertension studies, for example. But the prospect of marketable products (patents) makes universities an appealing investment for corporations, in particular, because those corporations now have to negotiate only with upper-level administrators, and not with an assortment of free-agent faculty members.

More generally, Bayh-Dole also inaugurated the era of earmarked corporate donations. That, in turn, is important because such sources of revenue are all that's keeping state universities afloat. Ohio State, for example, ranks third in the country in bringing in corporate donations. Elite private universities, by contrast, rely much more heavily on alumni donations. Top recipients of those funds were Washington and Lee University, Bowdoin College, Princeton University, and Cornell University.

The shift in the material base of the university leaves the humanities entirely out in the cold. Corporations don't earmark donations for the humanities because our research culture is both self-contained and absurd. Essentially, we give the copyrights of our scholarly articles and monographs to university presses, and then buy them back, or demand that our libraries buy them back, at exorbitant markups. And then no one reads them. The current tenure system obliges us all to be producers of those things, but there are no consumers.

So, will the humanities survive the 21st century? My guess may surprise you, in light of the trends I've just rehearsed: Yes.

Intelligent popular novels continue to be written; the nonfiction of humanists who defy disciplinary affiliation (Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell, and Garry Wills, among others) will still make best-seller lists; and brilliant independent films (like Slumdog Millionaire) will occasionally capture large popular audiences.

The survival of the humanities in academe, however, is a different story. The humanities will have a home somewhere in 2110, but it won't be in universities. We need at least to entertain the possibility that the humanities don't need academic institutions to survive, but actually do quite well on their own.

Some people may argue that, even if the humanities flourish outside academe, some group will have to train the new generation of public humanists how to read and write. Perhaps, but I see no compelling reason that those trainers must be college professors. There were many great poets, playwrights, and novelists in the United States long before 1922, when the University of Iowa became the first university in the country to accept creative projects as theses for advanced degrees. Russell Jacoby, in The Last Intellectuals, persuasively charted the migration of humanists from the world of literary magazines to academe. As working conditions in the humanities wing of the university continue to erode, what's to stop those humanists from migrating again?

When we claim to wonder whether the humanities will survive the 21st century, we're really asking, "Will the humanities have a place in the standard higher-education curriculum in the United States?" That's not really an intellectual question but a self-interested professional one, because we humanists would like to see ourselves as stewards of the curriculum. In reality, though, we are not, nor have we been for the last two generations. Curricula change over time, and the humanities simply don't have a place in the emergent curriculum of the 21st century.

Frank Donoghue is an associate professor of English at Ohio State University. His most recent book is The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (Fordham University Press, 2008).


1. sunycanton - September 05, 2010 at 05:15 pm

Good article about the past and future of the humanities, but "Slumdog Millionaire" a "brilliant independent film"? The humanities are in serious trouble indeed.

2. observer001 - September 05, 2010 at 07:47 pm

Of course the Humanities will survive in universities- they teach people how to think, argue, lead and understand the world; the problem is where they will survive. For the future of our democracy, the crisis is that the Humanities and its the ability to create and manipulate culture/history/religion/law will be the preserve of a ruling class produced increasingly by elite private universities exclusively, since the middle and lower classes have access only to state schools that have been gutted and converted into crap vocational-technical academies for an entrenched proletariat.

Seriously, a Classics or English literature major from Harvard enjoys infinitely better prospects of ending up in a leadership position in the financial services industry, government or law than a business, econ major, or political science major who went to some crap state school that has sold out its humanities programs or a poor communications major boondoggled by a sad 'Capella/DeVry/Phoenix' pyramid scheme.

3. lost_angeleno - September 05, 2010 at 11:50 pm

More to the point, will human beings survive the 21st century?

4. hamilton1982 - September 06, 2010 at 09:19 am

I sincerely feel there will always be scope for man to know oneself.

5. sgtrock - September 06, 2010 at 10:47 am

The comments of observer001 are exactly why most of us teaching in “crap vocational-technical academies for an entrenched proletariat” really don't care too much about the problems of the humanities faculty. Their elite “we know best” attitude does not garner much support from the rest of the academy.

Rest assured that humanities will be taught, however, they will be taught by lecturers in business and engineering schools and they will be free of the post-modernist twaddle that had terminally infected most programs.

6. trendisnotdestiny - September 06, 2010 at 11:30 am


Its not that we know best. We are fallable just like everyone else, but its that we have considered these issues in more depth, have read more about their implications and are less likely to jump willy nilly into a system of self-interested predation that sells to everyone (including you) that you can make it if you try hard enough.... The meritocracy is a fabrication bent on spotlighting only those few successes while ignoring mass fraud. We are not so quick to believe the systems that we see abusing people everyday.... Maybe you can live with that in your self protected cocoon, but at some point it will feed off of you and direct your anger away from the root cause like every other fascist regime....

Your understandings of why there is a rift among those who teach from a job training perspective and those integrate critical thought is a bit lacking. Your statement misrepresents who has the power to shape what we learn. If I am reading you correct, it is the belief of who has the most power wins (business and engineering)in a social darwinian belief of individualism, hyper-religiousity of the marketplace and the indifference that is embedded in "I need to get mine before others get theirs"

We can do a lot better than this, but your certainty does not support your understanding of why the professorate has taken the position of shared governance and resisted the final phase of co-option.... You might try Cary Nelson or Henry Giroux

7. enipeus - September 06, 2010 at 02:10 pm

A major premise of the article seems to be that the reduction in the proportion of students / faculty involved in the humanities is somehow a possible indication of the collapse of the humanities. Why can't this simply be a symptom of the growth of new disciplines? That is, many "older" disciplines will naturally find themselves with a smaller proportion of the post-secondary pie, but this isn't necessarily a problem at all, if the pie itself has grown in the meantime.

Certainly, the absolute numbers of humanities professors at my own state university is very high (the English department may well be the largest in terms of tenured or tenure-track faculty), and is probably far higher than was typical at any public university a century ago.

8. trendisnotdestiny - September 06, 2010 at 02:31 pm

@ enipeus,

Except that explantion (as well thought out as it seems) does not account for the idea that those win the power get to write the history. At this crucial transition point in our culture, this means that most professions have been de-skilled of those functions that do not directly affect the bottom line of profits first....

Humanities in history of the professorate has been one of the most progressive bastions in this culture.... To believe that we are not under pressure is to believe that budget cuts, downsizing, and economic downturns are not welcomed by adminstrators as legitimizing events to cut programs and resources to those resisting forces....

We do no know our history (New Deal vs. Private Industry battles that have been taking place over the last 70 years).... Now, we are in a time when risk has de-leveraged where gains are private secured and losses publically distributed as to mute their response. The language of business is purposefully vague as every business talks in code so that the uninformed are excluded from the conversation. This is important in a globalized world of finance because very few us know the code.

Capital = common stock
Collapsing Capital = reverse stock split
Contractual Obligations = debt holders
Innovation = transforming to a more profitable business plan
Entrepreneurial = Risk shifting expert
Externalization = A & B pass risk onto a 3rd party
De-leveraging = Unwinding all contractual agreements


9. nativepoet - September 06, 2010 at 04:14 pm

Only my chapboks will survive. The Indigenous poet of the world.
All will bow before me
and cry
for nationalism

10. newamsterdam - September 06, 2010 at 11:59 pm

Humanities has been the core of the acedemy since Plato. The first business school was established in 1819 (the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce of Paris), roughly contemporaneous with the advent of the industrial age and modern capitalism. I'm pretty sure that 100 years from now students will still be rigorously debating the truths to be found in the works of humanists such as Shakespeare, Borges, Plato, Kant, and Wittgentein while the business plans, marketing theories and practices, and consumption ideologies taught by most business schools will be only be found in landfills alongside dvds of "Dude Where's My Car."

11. trendisnotdestiny - September 07, 2010 at 12:27 am

@ newamsterdam,

I hope you are right

12. drgoldin - September 07, 2010 at 12:38 am

Judging from the comments, I'd have to say that the humanities are already dead.

13. a_voice - September 07, 2010 at 10:19 am

I think that we are killing the humanities with our narrow and compartmentalized thinking. The humanities, in one form or another, should be embedded in everything we teach.

14. gplm2000 - September 07, 2010 at 11:30 am

As a recent graduate of a state university I am not sure of the meaning of the article. Will someone please tell me what are the humanities? My shop class, remedial reading and writing classes did not mention them. I am a community organizer. Will the humanities help me in my job?

15. nacrandell - September 07, 2010 at 11:34 am

Harvard is a classic example of marketing. Is the degree better or the networking possibilities better? They certainly have a hold on TV and movies plots - if you want your character to seem bright, have them go to Harvard Law. Are there no other good law schools in the US?

As to Humanities - if they (Combined faculties) don't get off their academic @!*#$, then the business schools will reduce them.

What is the difference between Alan Greenspan and Arthur Schlesinger Jr? - Greenspan is known and respected, while Shleishinger is unknown and respected by historians. Economics is the study of money/trade and human reaction/emotion. Because economists have attached themselves to the business school, their opinions are given better weight in arguments and a better amount in their paychecks. While historians are derided for looking at the past, the current crop of economists make excuses for not seeing the oncoming "Great Recession - and get away with it!

Analysis is the answer and the product that Humanities need to be promoting and stop the rhetoric of love of learning. Just because you like to wear 15 year old jackets and drink blended scotch doesn't mean everyone else does also. You are dragging down the degree and other degree holders with this denial of reality. Get your collected heads out of the sand!

16. digitallearning - September 07, 2010 at 11:49 am

Friends & Colleagues:

Given the article and comments: Perhaps "Can our Universities Survive the 21st Century" may serve as a better frame for the conversation.

17. a_voice - September 07, 2010 at 11:54 am

@gplm2000: I am not an expert in the humanities. So, in this age of abundant electronic resources, I am going to encourage you to research it and learn more about it.

Regarding your second question, you are a human, the members of the community that you are trying to organize are humans (I assume), and other stakeholders that you engage with are humans. To be an effective community organizer, I would think that you would need to know something about the history, the culture, the religion, and other aspects of the human condition of your stakeholders. What is the substance of your community organizing in people's terms? That is the question.

18. blackswan555 - September 07, 2010 at 12:18 pm

The humanities likely will not survive at universities as major fields with strong research orientations. The humanities can prosper, in one sense, by merging the various departments into a team- and teaching-oriented college of general education within the university or broader college. This kind of metamorhosis could feel humbling to some, but in many ways the students and the society would benefit from humanities research migrating out of the universities. I would not recommend my own field of philosophy as a major, but I strongly recommend it for a minimum of two courses per college student, perhaps one course per student at the community college level. Contrary to some aspects of Frank Donoghue's paper, assesssing the condition and perceived value of the humanities at our universities should focus on the number of courses and students taught, not on the number of majors produced.

19. softshellcrab - September 07, 2010 at 01:33 pm

I am not a humanities professor, but I wish that our students had a better education and grounding in the humanities. I should also note, they should not need to wait for college to start this. High schools should be requiring at least the college-bound students to read great books and classics, and to write extensively (and should be grading that writing rigorously... "Sorry Johnny, that was akward. Do it over." Or "Sorry Johnny, that paper was not well written. Maybe this won't help you self-actualize, but I'm giving you a D.").

20. rickinchina09 - September 07, 2010 at 02:15 pm

The humanities will have a precarious presence on campus as long as it remains beholden to post-structuralist theories far removed from reality other academics can access, ascertain, and acknowledge. Faculty in the humanities would do well to free their thinking from the grand narrative of critical pedagogy for starters.

21. shivaji28 - September 07, 2010 at 04:58 pm

The "humanities" will survive in the universities in the twenty-first century; but not in the way the term has been understood in academia in the past and even in these days. It's the same with "liberal arts." It too will survive in academia, but not in the way it is understood traditionally.

Let me explain.

Since the origin of the word "humanities" is from the word "humanist," (the Latin "umanista"), I think we should examine that term in its cultural-academic context a little more deeply. "Humanism" has meant many things in the past: in the Renaissance, it emphasized the individual over his community; during the Romantic period, "I" took on enormous significance to the point of being overly individualistic. In the early twentieth century, however, Sartre gave a different spin to the term "humanism."

In his famous essay, "Existentialism is a Humanism," (1946), he explained that existing precedes the essence of being; i.e., without existence, there is no being: quite the opposite of what people used to believe before Sartre, especially the religious existentialists.Extrapolating from the non-religious premise -- that existence precedes the essence of being -- Sartre then meticulously worked out a map of meaningful existential living which may be distilled in his message: life is a constant interaction between the person and the environment; therefore, live in the here and now. In the 1946 essay, Sartre called such existentialism a humanism.

I submit -- rather humbly -- that that the Sartrean humanism can be curricularized in academia through an emphasis on cognitive and affective skills that students use while acquiring the knowledge of the humanities. The X-axis of such a curriculum could be a set of intellectual skills like "comprehension," "analysis," "evualuation" to name only three; while the Y-axis could be knowledge of literature, history or philosophy. Students will get to discuss with their professor and fellow students, not just what they learned but how they did so; how, intellectually they received the knowledge, understood it in their own terms, analyzed it and organized it for themselves and evaluated it both in terms of the internal evidence of the material and in terms of external criteria. In short, students would develop their own epistemological awareness vis-a-vis the humanities. The contemporary argument, that humanities don't bring jobs would then no longer be valid because the response to such argument could be "Intellectual self awareness about how to learn knowledge bring jobs!"

In the end, we all know that the ULTIMATE purpose of higher education is NOT jobs. It is developing awareness. Ergo cogito sum -- the humanities with an emphasis on curricularized articulation of the intellectual and affective skills can affirm students' own existence: they think; therefore they ARE.

Shivaji Sengupta, Ph.D.
VP and Dean, Chief Academic Officer
Boricua College
New York City


22. nacrandell - September 07, 2010 at 06:27 pm

# 20 and 21 are fantastic examples of the arrogance of Humanities.

20 - "The humanities will have a precarious presence on campus as long as it remains beholden to post-structuralist theories far removed from reality other academics can access, ascertain, and acknowledge."

Sounds impressive but doesn't it mean "to get off the pot"?

21 - "In the end, we all know that the ULTIMATE purpose of higher education is NOT jobs. It is developing awareness."

Not quite - as long as you can convince new students to take your course, well you certainly have a job. So it is kinda important -right?

Has anyone dealt with customer service lately? Procedures are quoted by the 'business' person on the other end, but rarely can they analyze the procedure if asked. They simply know that this is the way we do things at company x.

Education is like a temperature inversion, but here humanities students/graduates are trapped in the lower levels of a company not smog. We need to break out and demonstrate the use of analysis in business. Quoting Latin may impress your mother or 18 year olds, but it won't impress the university president who is paying you 1/2 to 1/3 the salary of a professor in the business school.

23. adjunct_to_admin - September 07, 2010 at 06:56 pm

"We all know that the ultimate purpose of higher education is not jobs."

I smell elite, ivory tower logic at work, here. Sorry, but I disagree entirely. The thing is, my background is in the humanities (BA English Lit, MA Rhet / Comp). As such I have a tremendous love and appreciation for literature and philosophy, and believe these forms of cultural expression provide us, as Kenneth Burke once put it, with "equipment for living," that is, with tools for making sense of the world and our place in it.

But saying that the purpose of higher ed is NOT jobs is the most counter-intuitive statement imaginable, one any serious student, professor, or administrator would laught at, even deride. Quoting Sarte won't get you a job or pay the bills or help to raise a family or lead one to a sustainable career. What it will furnish you with is a heavy burden of debt and a bucket full of broken dreams.

Academia does a tremendous disservice to students if it does not position them to find employment at a livable wage once they have completed their degree. It's unfair and irresponsible to hide behind a rhetoric of personal enlightenment, and to detach a course of study from its concrete application in the world.

Personally, I think you can find yourself, develop awareness, and the rest for $1.50 in overdue library fines, but that's just me.

24. zefelius - September 07, 2010 at 07:57 pm

Professor Donoghue reminds us that in 1910 colleges served a small population of elites. Although I myself would love to see the humanities prosper, Donoghue's reminder -- which is intended to show how much things have changed -- seems to do exactly the opposite: a small elite class continues to gain access to a well-rounded education.

In 1910 this was done by way of a college education (which at that time was intrinsically elite), and now this kind of education is reserved for a handful of private universities, as mentioned again by Donoghue. Hence the overall percentage of the U.S. population receiving this kind of education may have remained more stable than what is suggested if we only compare higher education numbers of one year to another.

25. trendisnotdestiny - September 08, 2010 at 12:34 am

@ To ALL Readers

"I smell elite, ivory tower logic at work, here. Sorry, but I disagree entirely."

I get tired of the tremendous disservice argument for education being place at the feet of teachers (elite, ivory tower)... Be specific here, name names... Because too often this ia a stereotype used by hidden interests and agendas.... If you are so right then come out with it (its not enough to generalize to a whole profession)....

Second, I can think of about 20 more damaging things students encounter in this culture than how we go about teaching (instead of job training).... So here is a list of just three:

1) Outsourcing of American jobs (Globalization); real workers become less important as supply increases globally and wages are suppressed as capital seeks the cheapest form of GDP growth possible.... Great for Multi-nationals, Shitty for workers and small business owner

2) Debt for Diploma Model Based on a Meritocratic American Dream: there are few things more sinister than telling our children they need to compete, de-funding their resources for decades, increasing the prices of tuition, denegrating their mentors influence and selling them that the professorate is a bunch of elites (as the CEO's pay $87K for a waste paper basket)... What is worse though is in 20 twenty years when our students look back at what they paid for (not teachers, but the credential) and regret that they should have put their money in a ROTH IRA as the disparity between haves and have nots will continue to increase.

3) 1 in 4 women will have experience rape by the time they leave college with only 5% coming forward (whistleblowing). College for many students is a trip to summer camp between alcohol, sexually transmitted diseases and recreational penchant for paying attention to those things most that will affect their life the least (Bowl games, keggers, frat parties and gorked out cohorts sitting in front of the television wanting their 15 minutes of fame).... We do not observe power very well and its abuse unless it happens directly to us (then we want action in an indignant rage)...

So, the fact that I didn't promote IBM's how to run pre-job training in my classroom is the least of my students' problems. Anyone with an imagination would realize that with a 20% joblessness rate that we do not value education in country other than its ability to function as a marketing tool to gain employment. We should not "play ball" as if this is the best we can do. The greater disservice is not giving our students as much information about the soul-less pit of corporate greed they are about to tie their anchor to.... Training them to be successful at their job is business' tab not academe's.....

26. jabberwocky12 - September 08, 2010 at 02:50 am

If they fail, it will be because their greatest strength has been their undoing. Their greatest strength is that they teach students to be sceptical, to question, to doubt, and best of all to think.

The last thing an elected government needs is an electorate that is sceptical, questions, doubts and thinks. And when the citizens are not the "electorate," a despotic government needs that even less.

It's not for nothing that Iran is cracking down on these departments - and they don't even try to hide their reasons behind the usual spin of "jobs" etc. They make it plain - we don't want doubters.


27. wmamsts - September 08, 2010 at 07:43 am

quoting #22 quoting #21
21 - "In the end, we all know that the ULTIMATE purpose of higher education is NOT jobs. It is developing awareness."

Not quite - as long as you can convince new students to take your course, well you certainly have a job. So it is kinda important -right?
end quote

Seems to me that if we think about "jobs" as shorthand for something like "human productive endeavor," then, yeah, higher ed can be about that. And I can see humanities playing a big role in that. But if we see "jobs" as shorthand for "slots in an economy predetermined by 'other' forces that students need to fill," then no, there is very little place for humanities in higher ed.

If we're committed to giving people the intellectual toolkit to both adapt to, and change, the productive environment they must enter, then we're also committed to drawing on the history, literature, music, philosophy and the like to outfit that toolkit.

And by "we" I of course mean our society, but more directly, colleges and humanists. I'm a member of all three sets, and I think too many (but not all) of my humanist colleagues miss thinking about how what we teach prepares students for their productive futures, and how what we research and write about helps everyone else productively adapt to and creatively change the world they live in.

This is why I think it's worth fighting to keep humanities in education.

28. maggie2b - September 08, 2010 at 09:06 am

There is a good deal of clear seeing in this essay. I sometimes simply hope that as the for-profit so-called "universities" which are really polytechs take on occupational training, so liberal arts colleges can preserve and grow the humanities. As a humanist, the research universities in which I have always had employment seem to me increasingly venal, vulgar, and alien, places I simply do not want to be.

29. woodmontwoman - September 08, 2010 at 09:44 am

Perhaps because I see myself as a poet and not just an academic advisor at a major university, I can be forgiven for my misreading of the article's title as "Can the Humanities Save the 21st Century?"

30. mheffleychron - September 08, 2010 at 10:03 am

As one who owes ridiculously high student loans he'll probably never pay a penny of--incurred by the best nonprofit schools in the world, with the most prestigious degrees that have not led to a job that pays well enough to do so--and who nevertheless landed a job therewith teaching basic writing and humanities survey courses online for one of the biggest for-profits, I have a multifaceted perspective on all this.

First, I have no illusions about fairness or meritocracy prevailing here; it's a jungle out there, and I took on the debt of my student loans knowing that the only other option was the poverty I was born into, and that what I was paying for was self-improvement, fulfillment of my intellectual and creative potential, etc., not a guarantee of a career commensurate with my abilities. Like the great lady sang, "Them that's got shall get, them that's not shall lose...but God bless the child that's got his own."

Second, along the course of that education I've done million-dollar work as both scholar and teacher for peanuts and debt. When I die, it will be with that nice big fat clean little secret.

Third, that work continues apace in this new peanuts-paying job I have teaching online. Since starting it in 2006, I've taught thousands of the students for-profits either serve or exploit the most, depending on your take--low-income, minorities, those who need it the most--the basic skills of literacy and cultural literacy that they need to even start getting somewhere better. I don't know whether the degree they ultimately get, if any, will serve them any better than mine have me, but I do know that we've had the opportunity for a real teaching-learning engagement, and have risen to and benefited from it far more often than not. That's the best I've been able to get to, and it feels like enough for me, in this jungle.

It reminds me of a little memoir I read years ago by Solzhenytsin, about teaching basic language skills classes to adolescent Russian students in some backwater school. His creds as a great man of letters meant nothing to his society because he was a dissident, shut out, so he was getting by as best he could. But the thing about it was that he was also doing great work in that spot; he wrote about it movingly, with real compassion and concern about the students, obviously invested in them and their outcomes, despite the overarching society hostile and indifferent to him and them.

That's where we're at here--getting and giving what we can as we can, hoping to parlay it into its worthier matches somewhere down the line.

31. judithryan43 - September 08, 2010 at 10:49 am

"The good times are rolling in higher education." What a strange perspective! Yes, some universities may be constructing buildings. But at my university, there have been painful cuts and layoffs, particularly of librarians and support staff. Faculty members received no raises for two years--and that includes the sciences. This year, some of us have received tiny raises, but other colleagues' salaries have remained flat. The administration is not willing to fill positions vacated by retirements, but visiting professors are still not hired. I don't see a striking difference between the sciences and the humanities on those scores.

32. ignoramus - September 08, 2010 at 11:12 am

When the human person has been reduced to something less than human -- from a homo sapien to a homo economicus -- it only seems reasonable that the humanities will fall on hard times.

33. 11191210 - September 08, 2010 at 11:19 am

I'd like to stick up for the post-mods, who take a lot of abuse in these posts, which I suspect are just as guilty of stereotyping as all the references to "elites."
If you think po-mo is useless, consider the fact that the radical right has mastered its principles better than anyone - they have realized that you can make anything sound like a fact if you use the right language. You may deplore that practice, but po-mo made it possible, and po-mo has the analytical tools to counter it.
I am further annoyed by Dr. Sangupta's conclusion that, "The humanities will have a home somewhere in 2110, but it won't be in universities. We need at least to entertain the possibility that the humanities don't need academic institutions to survive, but actually do quite well on their own." No further evidence is offered for this amazing assertion - if my classics degree and I could be more gainfully employed, and if I could know I have given the same skills in analysis and broader perspectives to hundreds of people who will use them in their many post-college paths, I would love to hear it.

34. newamsterdam - September 08, 2010 at 11:35 am

The real value of the humanities is to prepare us for death. Nothing else will.

35. more_cowbell - September 08, 2010 at 12:03 pm

I don't think the humanities ever fare well in times of recession. There also a big difference between the value of an english degree and a philosophy or Latin studies degree. One can get you work in areas outside of the academic realm.

I think the current generation of faculty has to bear much of the blame for the declining reputation of a humanities degree, particularly at the graduate level. There is so much disconnect between what goes on inside and outside of the university. Myopic research topics, insular tail-chasing debates over theory, shoddy research conducted for the sake of political advocacy, no liaising between academic professionals and the public or government, and no dissemination (or justification) of academic research to public audiences. I heard a MSc candidate on the radio yesterday talking about her research on the survival of wild birds - I thought when was the last time I heard someone in the humanities do the same with their work? The fact is no one cares about the vast majority of humanities research. It's too irrelevant and undecipherable to the vast majority of people. Is it any surprise that less people are pursuing humanities degrees and dept budgets are being cut? I just hope the wake up call for faculty comes before it is too late for fields in the humanities to survive.

36. adjunct_to_admin - September 08, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Some say the point of higher education is to humanize us, that is, to faciliate personal enlightenment. In other words, the point isn't jobs, but developing awareness.

I say the point of higher education IS jobs and that to say otherwise is to do students a tremendous diservice. The development of awareness is a byproduct which one can just as easily achieve through a vareity of other means (higher ed, and the humanities in particular, don't have a premium on fostering critical consciousness).

In fact, I'd go a step further. The quickest way to DE-humanize students is to set them up for failure, to send them through four years of education and saddle them with debt, only to find we haven't positioned them or equipped them to find work that will pay a livable wage at a livable wage.

Saying the point isn't jobs takes our focus away from creating the material conditions that afford the leisure to think, create, and "develop awareness" in the first place.

37. more_cowbell - September 08, 2010 at 12:14 pm

Depts also need to stop appropriating the success of a select few graduates as rationale to pursue a humanities degree. There used to a big poster in my old dept touting the various careers that their graduates went on to. What the poster didnt say was what percentage actually enjoyed such successes, what exactly got them those jobs (it was implied that it was the degree), and what has happened to those with graduate degrees. I also thought it irnoic that they had to advertise all the jobs you could get in other fields, incidentally with a non-related degree. Speaks more to the resilience of some indioviduals than the intrinsic merit of a degree.

38. 22286593 - September 08, 2010 at 12:54 pm

In the U.S.--in a very strange way--the humanities are in trouble because it has become too successful at attracting and graduating as many students as it can. At most universities, humanities are the last refuge for students who do not have academic skills to make it in the sciences or in professional schools. Generation after generation of American students have shown up as pre-med or engineering majors and have failed at their original goal and ended up with English and history degrees. Given the sea of mediocrity, the claims of excellence and value seem hollow. One way we can turn this around is to become more selective and serious about how we manage students in humanities fields--if students are flunking out of biology at Ohio State, they should go to a community college and then make their way back. As long as humanities at American universities continue to be a refuge of mediocre and lazy students, it will earn the reputation it deserves. Imagine if Ohio State's English department insisted on the same faculty student ratio as the electrical engineering department and then imposed a cap on the number of majors and admit students on a competitive basis: the value of things is often inversely related to its size.

39. homo_rhetoricus - September 08, 2010 at 01:13 pm

@ 35:

Best description of the state of humanities research I've encountered yet. When I think of research of humanities, I think of sophisticated language games rehearsed in front of tiny audiences, which have little to no bearing outside of its field.

40. tallenc - September 08, 2010 at 02:19 pm

Of course, students come to college to prepare for jobs. And we want them to get jobs. But we also want them to be able to think well enought to keep those jobs, and get other, different jobs if they ever want to. But more importantly, we don't want them to sacrifice their humanity (sell their souls, if you like) to corporate advancement. Having jobs that we like and can support ourselves with is something we all want, but surely we want to be humans with jobs rather than androids with jobs. And that's the point of the humanities, isn't it? I'm not talking about grad school and critical theory, here; I'm talking about basic undergraduate knowledge of art and music and literature--all those things that make our lives richer and more fulfilling, whatever career we pursue. It just saddens me that the students of the future, and perhaps the students of the present and recent past, if the comments of gpalm above are any indication, are losing out on all of this.

41. dank48 - September 08, 2010 at 02:37 pm

The exaggerated respect given economists these days, particularly in the business-school context, is another passing fad. The idea that an economist, even the most brilliant economist imaginable, is more respected than a first-rate historian is ludicrous. They're more alike than the economists want us to realize.

A historian can tell you what happened. An economist can tell you why it happened. Neither has the slightest expertise, insight, or inspiration regarding the future. Nobody can tell you--with better than happenstantial accuracy--what is going to happen. Come to that, the same could be said for climatologists too.

Fortunately, most historians of my acquaintance are perfectly aware of their inability to predict the future. I wish more economists and climatologists had that becoming humility.

42. 12039333 - September 08, 2010 at 03:22 pm

@#36: "Saying the point isn't jobs takes our focus away from creating the material conditions that afford the leisure to think, create, and "develop awareness" in the first place."

A salient point; but since when is it the university's mission to create those material conditions? Shouldn't that be the task of business and industry (and some would say government)?

43. 11159995 - September 08, 2010 at 03:42 pm

For a view of economists' status in our society, see "Economics as Religion" written by an economist who sees that the emperor wears no clothes: http://www.psupress.org/books/titles/0-271-02095-4.html.

Donoghue takes a gratuitous swipe at university presses by accusing them of forcing authors to transfer their copyrights and then charging "exorbitant" prices for books and journals. That may be true for some large commercial publishers, but it is manifestly not true for university presses. Donoghue would do well to read the many studies that Fordham University business professor Albert Greco has published that show how much lower prices of university press publications are compared with those from commercial publishers. And Donoghue completely ignores the obvious truth that these copyrights are controlled by the parent universities, not the presses, most of which have no independent legal status.

Donoghue also is naive about suggesting that humanities might find a base outside the academy. He cites the names of a few high-profile authors who have been economically successful; he ignores the many thousands of other authors who cannot support themselves through their writing. Where are the patrons who would be needed to re-create the era when the arts and humanities were supported outside the academy by wealthy benefactors? There are just not enough of them to come close to funding the activities of humanists today.

The utilitarian approach that has reduced higher education to a job-training function misses what is most valuable in the long run. An active, engaged, informed citizenry that is vital to the health of our democracy is not going to be produced by corporatized universities that churn out graduates for the immediate job market. And those graduates will themselves be ill served by being educated only for existing jobs, not for those of the future for which people who can readily adapt their skills to new challenges will be better positioned to fill. That latter flexibility requires the broad kind of education that the humanities provide.

---Sandy Thatcher (past president of the Association of American University Presses, 2007/8)

44. homo_rhetoricus - September 08, 2010 at 04:36 pm


You write of, or rather, write off the "utilitarian" approach, which implies you think its not the university's job to position students for employment (honestly "churning out graduates for the job market," as you aptly put it, sounds pretty good, but that's just me).

You do say, however, that the university's job is to create an active, engaged, informed citizenry. Words, words, words. Says who? And "Active," "engaged," and "informed" as defined by who? These are buzzwords that can be manipulated to mean anything you, me, the right, or left wants them to mean. This kind of rhetoric is just a smokescreen and doesn't describe a concrete agenda.

I think this kind of laissez-fair-we-do-our-thing-and-business-and-industry-does-their-thing-while-students-do-their-thing-way-of-thinking ducks the problem, evades responsibility and, ultimately, leaves students to fend for themselves.

I side with those here who say the point of higher ed is jobs. One can't lead a fruitful, produtive life without a job and money to pay the bills. And the argument that saying this adds up to producing cookie-cutter students for corrupt cookie-cutter corporate jobs is a crude, artificial reduction. To say higher ed's about jobs also means to prepare students for careers in the non-profit sector, healthcare, social work, education, natural resources, hard sciences, international relations, trades, whatever.

You make it sound like universities are churning out fleets of Gordon Geckos, or something, when this obviously isn't the case.

45. 22074041 - September 08, 2010 at 04:53 pm

Some arguments for the continuation of teaching humanities fields inside and outside the university include: that the preservation of democracy depends on knowledgeable citizens who vote; that decisions about technology development and application cannot be made by technocrats alone (since such decisions involve values and choices); and that in our world today, ethnic clashes have become the bases of civil and international wars, while ethnic differences can be understood only through culture, history, religion, language, anthropology, and related fields. Naomi F. Collins, Ph.D. (Author of the "Humanities" entry in the Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History; and of "Culture's New Frontier," (American Council of Learned Societies).

46. dank48 - September 08, 2010 at 04:55 pm

When you look at the expansion, or explosion, of business school enrollments, it does seem that universities are churning out fleets (or rather packs) of would-be Gordon Geckos.

Number 43, imo, hits the nail on the head. The job-training ethos seems all well and good, but "practical" training, meaning complete concentration on specific skills needed for specific jobs, leaves little room for education, perhaps best defined as "what you have left when you've forgotten everything you learned in college."

Society in general, and especially business, and now more recently secondary education, have become infected by the disease of undeferrable gratification, exemplified by short-term thinking, quick-return investment strategy, and expedient corner-cutting rather than prudent longrange planning.

Students are ill-served by expediency. Those jobs they're training for now will not necessarily even exist ten years from now. And down the line, we'll see the effects of this short-term thinking on society in general. As if we weren't already.

47. 22122488 - September 08, 2010 at 05:01 pm

The future of the humanities will depend on their abilities to evolve. We need to think creatively how to make meaningful connections of the Humanities to the professional education. Medical and Engineering education are yearning for specially designed humanities courses that will better prepare doctors and engineers for a much more complex and demanding world. Humanities in their purest form may be shrinking - but the future of a new generation of humanities with meaningful connections to the major is the future. Back in the 80s NEH funded with a $1 million dollar grant (one of the largest grant at the time) an ambitious new experiment at the University of Florida in Gainesville. The development of a cadre of creative humanities courses that catered to the profession . For a short time I was part of that program. I noticed that the program developed specially designed humanities courses for medical, engineering, law and business students. This was an exciting new direction it was very well received by the students and the departments. One reason for its success it that often these courses were team-taught by two faculty who collaborated in the development and the delivery of the course. One faculty was from the humanities ( and one who had interest in that major) and the other was a faculty from the major (who had a special bond with the humanities). Unfortunately that experiment did not spread and although we see isolated versions of it here and there we need to make it a major national effort if we want the humanities to survive. Let us build bridges with the professional fields and invite faculty from the professional fields to collaborate with faculty in the humanities on a more personal basis.

48. homo_rhetoricus - September 08, 2010 at 05:21 pm


Spot on. As #35 puts it, the "myopic research topics, insular tail-chasing debates over theory, shoddy research conducted for the sake of political advocacy" that too-often characterizes research in the humanities will go extinct if it doesn't find way to build bridges with professional fields. A beautiful image.


Your claim that "practical" job training "leaves little room for education" is abusrd, not mention insulting, to design drafters, engineers, RN's, and any college grad who has pursued training along occupational lines. Believe me, they're getting just as much and just as real an education (as opposed to what, the humanities grad who wrote a mind-numbing diss on early-modern epistemology and it's influence on the Shakespearean stage?)

49. trendisnotdestiny - September 08, 2010 at 05:34 pm

In terms of the "utilitarian discussion" so aptly discussed by Sandy Thatcher reminds me of piece written by Andrew Bacevich recently (I posted it in another thread, but it is very useful here)

In his article: The Unmaking of a Company Man, Bacevich starts off by saying:

"Worldly ambition inhibits true learning. Ask me. I know. A young man in a hurry is nearly uneducable: he knows what he wants and where he is headed; when it comes to looking back or entertaining heretical thoughts, he has neither the time nor the inclination. ALL THAT COUNTS is that he is going somewhere. Only as ambition wanes does education become a possibility."

(For those who have read this before, my apologies for the redundancy).... I couldn't help not repeating in the face of the utilitarian arguments brought forth...


50. homo_rhetoricus - September 08, 2010 at 05:52 pm

Ah come on, just cause it's true for Bacevich doesn't make it true for EVERY young man (or woman). There's gotta be a fancy latin phrase to describe this kind of logical fallacy (someone in humanities, help!). And just cause people pursue training along occupational lines, and therefore have a clear vision of where they want to go and are eager to get there, doesn't mean they're motivated by crass, "wordly ambition."

51. 11319762 - September 08, 2010 at 06:02 pm

Observer001 is right the Harvard Humanities major will stand a better chance of leading a big company. Daddy will always pick him as his successor over the moe qualified business school grad. By the way, the Harvard Business School does seem to crank out more CEOs than the Arts & Science Faculty.

52. trendisnotdestiny - September 08, 2010 at 06:58 pm

@ homo rhetoricus,

"Ah come on, just cause it's true for Bacevich doesn't make it true for EVERY young man (or woman)."

No one is suggesting that Bacevich's sentiments are monolithic... However, instead of going to the "its not everyones experience" criticism, it might be more helpful to get specific with how this does not fit your experience... your criticality would be accentuated with a story of how your ambition does not fit would be nice

"There's gotta be a fancy latin phrase to describe this kind of logical fallacy (someone in humanities, help!)."

Before you go on with your latin critique, isn't customary to actually read Bacevich in context before prescribing sentence. Pardons if you have read the article, but again logical fallacy is not in play here since this was more of autobiographical piece (he is telling you his positionality and not assuming yours)... After all, he is one of most respected scholars of military history at Boston University. However, we all need to be challenged... Homo rhetoricus you can do better than that!

"And just cause people pursue training along occupational lines, and therefore have a clear vision of where they want to go and are eager to get there, doesn't mean they're motivated by crass, "wordly ambition."

While I struggle with editing my posts in the alotted time before the whole sentiment is lost in the ether, I would point out that "just cause" is a bit conversational for this crowd here at CHE. While I suffer from errors all the time, it is not insurmountable noteworthy. In terms of your last comment, I would agree that the connection between knowing what one wants is not directly translated into worldly ambition.

But homo rhetoricus, think about what Bacevich is saying here culturally. He is saying that an outcome based system of utilitarian job training in a university setting had no lasting impact on his education because he knew that his future skills (in the military) were divergent from that being presented. Hence it wasn't until he had already had a career come and go that "education" became important. This is a critique of our culture, educational structures, and implications of corporate outsourcing job training onto higher education in exchange for funding...

This fits my experience as well. Big 10 undergraduate training to learn how to use my relationships to build a business in the brokerage industry during one of the most prolific markets the world has ever seen (1990-2000). This happened because of cheap credit, de-regulated markets, gutted statutes, and a hyper privatized society bent on absorbing gains and socializing losses. In retrospect, wouldn't it have been nice to have someone or some group in education who was critically looking at this phenomena before said crises:

1) S&L Crisis
2) Latin America Currency Crises
3) Ivan Boesky and Junk Bonds
4) Marquette Decision (that reversed decades of usury laws)
5) Enron, Worldcom, Healthsouth, Phillip Morris-Altria
6) Internet Bubble (technology used in the information age)
7) Housing Bubble (CDO's, SIV's, predatory sub-prime loans)
8) Gramm Leach Bliley (reversed Glass Steagall Act 1932)
9) 2005 Bankruptcy Bill (making it harder for consumer to file)
10) 2008 Banking Crisis (ML, Goldman, AIG, Fannie, Freddie)
11) 2009 Bailouts (too big to fail; wrecked economy)
12) Home Foreclosures and Unemployment at record levels

Instead, there wasn't anybody at home! They were attending to their own ambitions of academic grantmanship, publishing plaudits of dominant old boys network and looking out of young indebted students with an indifferent smerk of superiority. This is what was being modeled and heretical thought was subsumed by the noise machines we call academic administration, the department of education and free market thinktanks associated with heritage foundation, Cato Institute and NAM....

homo rhetoricus, I have spent nearly twenty years thinking about these issues. It is a bit of a disservice to (ah just come us) through a dismissive tone and perfunctory read of Bacevich. Of course if you have some ideas, I am riveted!


53. maggie2b - September 09, 2010 at 09:11 am

"As long as humanities at American universities continue to be a refuge of mediocre and lazy students, it will earn the reputation it deserves. Imagine if Ohio State's English department insisted on the same faculty student ratio as the electrical engineering department and then imposed a cap on the number of majors and admit students on a competitive basis: the value of things is often inversely related to its size."

Absolutely. I have am fed up with students expecting English courses to just wave them through with a "B". I insist on keeping up competitive standards of performance in my courses with the result that grades follow a "Bell curve" that would be deemed ideal in other disciplines that students must take seriously such as Organic Chemsitry, but has been called by my humanist colleagues "ruthless".

54. uofnewmexico - September 09, 2010 at 09:35 pm


55. 12068801 - September 10, 2010 at 09:55 am

Let's keep in mind too that 'humanities' means more than just English departments, even though they are usually the largest. And not all of these departments are shrinking!! Our art history department has seen a ca. 50% increase in undergraduate growth over the last decade, without a drop in student quality. We've kept our graduate program steady because of a combination of stagnant resources and faculty size (despite the influx in undergrads, of course) AND a desire to send only the most committed and best-educated of PhDs into a small and shrinking job market. But our undergrads will go into a huge variety of fields with the understanding that objects and environments matter. After all, art historians study where history happened and how events were presented visually to their contemporary audiences. That's the core discipline of the humanities!

56. frankschmidt - September 10, 2010 at 10:21 am

@sgtrock - "post-modernist twaddle"

This is a major way in which the humanities, through attempting to ape the sciences, have contributed to their own irrelevance.

57. 11159995 - September 10, 2010 at 03:46 pm

I went to college with the aim of becoming an aeronautical engineer (a very utilitarian goal). I ended up graduating summa cum laude with a B.A. in philosophy. Fortunately, Princeton had no trouble allowing me to switch from the engineering school to liberal arts, and it offers a superb education in both arenas. "Homo rhetoricus" might be interested to learn that my training in philosophy proved to be very useful in my later career in publishing, both as a copyeditor and as an acquisitions editor. It taught me how to analyze meaning in sentences and how to construct a valid argument, properly using evidence to support a theory--skills that benefit both copyediting and acquisitions. It also enabled me, as a citizen, to be critical of received wisdom and to care about such values as social justice. So, my education had some "utilitarian" value in a narrow sense, but also gave me the kind of broad humanities background that I could have applied in other fields also, like law, which I was tempted to pursue at one point. I am by no means opposed to job-training types of education. In fact, after my son tried out a couple of years of college, I supported his decision to leave and pursue training as an auto mechamnic, a job he holds today and is vary satisfied with doing. But my guess is that in ways he probably won't even realize until later in life his two years of broader education will serve him well also. There is a valuable role for vocational schools to play in our society. But it will be less of a flourishing democracy if all of education is simply utilitarian.---Sandy Thatcher

58. thunderboy - September 10, 2010 at 09:25 pm

If a university students wants to learn 'critical thinking' they are well advised to take philosophy, which is all about thinking about thinking. The bunkum dished out by the post-modernists in too many university departments will not help anyone to think critically about anything.

59. thunderboy - September 10, 2010 at 09:31 pm

@60, corrected (sorry):

If university students want to learn 'critical thinking' they are well advised to take philosophy, which is all about thinking about thinking. The bunkum dished out by the post-modernists in too many university departments will not help anyone to think critically about anything.

60. boobeirdo - September 11, 2010 at 12:49 am

Maybe all the humanists or pot smoking hippies should realize that learning about Plato or Socrates will not get you a job. I don't remember the last time I was asked to regurgitate a line from Shakespeare during an interview? I do believe that humanities and arts play a very small (almost insignificant) role in post secondary education, but times have changed and employers and businesses call the shots when it comes what type of degree they want their employee's to have. And humanity oriented degree's don't cut it anymore. Employers are looking for employees that can do thing, accomplish projects and manage people, and humanities don't provide that. They are too philosophical and theoretical (no employer wants an employee who theorizes about how to make the company better, more efficient, or faster). They want individuals that apply what they learned to real world issues, hence why the social science have sky rocketed. But don't worry all you humanity and arts students, there will jobs for you. Universities always need well spoken custodians and maintenance workers making a whopping $28,000/annum.

61. boobeirdo - September 11, 2010 at 12:59 am

@ homo_rhetoricus:

"Best description of the state of humanities research I've encountered yet. When I think of research of humanities, I think of sophisticated language games rehearsed in front of tiny audiences, which have little to no bearing outside of its field."

Exactly! What they don't realize is that their academic collegues laugh and snicker at their so called "research" which is more fitted for an above average high school student conducting a grade 10 research.

62. boobeirdo - September 11, 2010 at 01:16 am

I would like to provide one more relevant evidence to the ultimate demise or humanity and art's programs. Usually the least valued employee in a company has the lowest paying job. I present evidence 1) http://chronicle.com/article/Chart-Average-Faculty/64500/
The english and performing arts academics have one of the lowest paying job in post secondary institutions. What does that tell you about how the university/college values their work!

63. virmundi - September 11, 2010 at 10:55 am


What does that tell me? It tells me that you should have taken more humanities classes and learned how to think critically. My undergraduates could do a better job interpreting that evidence than you do here.

Humanities professors make less money for a variety of reasons. One involves a surplus of individuals qualified and willing to do such work. Another, the true love that a lot of humanities professors bring to their work which universities are aware that they can exploit with lower pay. It's also the case that there isn't a vibrant private-sector for jobs with similar working conditions, so there is less competition for pay in these types of jobs, which allows universities to set pay.

In any event, it is clear that you value the production of credulous corporate drones over American citizens, and I pity you for it.

64. microfante - September 11, 2010 at 03:39 pm

Unfortunately, the cat bites its own tail. Current teachers in humanities are clinging to their jobs in any possible way, so they are ready to regurgitate whichever rhetoric they can just to keep afloat: po-mo, deconstruction, the civic value of literature for the modern citizen, etc. In the outside world, no one believes them.

This does not mean that in the outside world everyone is so smart, while the professors are dumb. On the contrary, however clumsily, the professors are right: the humanities are the core of an education to critical thinking that would indeed be necessary today, IF WE LIVED IN A REAL DEMOCRACY.

As a matter of fact, we do not. We need people to be bamboozled by the flickering light of status and to spend all their money to the last penny. Stupidity increases the GDP, while critical thinking does not. Critical thinking will soon be reserved to the elite that is supposed to screw the rest of society out of its money.

Otherwise, why did the economists not mention Galbraith's "The Great Crash"? It told exactly what happened not only in 1929, but also in 2009. In that case, they could really see the future, but they did not tell us. They needed our money. They were not professors of humanities (and how many professors of humanities wished they had the power of the economists?)

65. microfante - September 11, 2010 at 03:40 pm

The humanities will flourish outside the university. Please tell us where.

66. dhume - September 11, 2010 at 06:44 pm

#61: You can tell that a post is poorly thought out when the spambots have more intelligent things to say.

"times have changed and employers and businesses call the shots when it comes what type of degree they want their employee's to have."

And you're OK with that? The fact that employers, who think of nothing but their own self-interest, now dictate what their employees need to know (and therefore what they get to know, to a large degree) strikes me as another sign that #70 is completely right about what a farce our "democracy" has become.

"Employers are looking for employees that can do thing,"

Wow, that's a really profound observation!

"accomplish projects and manage people, and humanities don't provide that."

And a business degree does? Honestly, I have a theory that most of the hostility directed at the humanities from b-school types is a diversionary tactic to prevent anyone from realizing how worthless and content-free business degrees are. Degrees in "management" strike me as the most worthless of all; how does one learn to manage people except by doing it? That's not something you get to do in a college classroom--of any type. The notion that a university degree qualifies anyone to "manage" people may speak to a problem with over-valuing credentials in our society, but I don't see how it argues against the instrinsic (or even practical) value of the humanities.

"no employer wants an employee who theorizes about how to make the company better, more efficient, or faster"

Really? I'm pretty sure most companies want to become better and more efficient--in other words, more competitive and more attractive to customers. Companies that don't care about those things probably don't stay in business very long.

"They want individuals that apply what they learned to real world issues"

This is true; and I'd be interested to know how b-school students who have spent 5 years watching PowerPoint shows and memorizing the information on the slides would do that, since they've never been required to think about anything?

67. zefelius - September 12, 2010 at 04:36 am


Sadly, your comment perfectly exemplifies why U.S. businesses and the government are spending over 3 billion dollars a year on writing training. They do this because their employees cost them in terms of efficiency, and thus time and money, due to their poor communication skills. I very much hope that English is not your primary language.

In any case, even if it isn't, your comments also nicely capture how the humanities are more necessary than ever if we wish to improve our nation's critical thinking skills. By taking a course or two in logica, for example, your arguments will become much more refined. As it currently stands, however, nearly every line of your commentary is marked by an egregious fallacy or unproven assumption.

For instance, in line one of comment #61, you refer to many of your opponents as "pot smoking hippies." This makes for good rhetoric in today's dumbed down society, but it looks an awful lot like an ad hominem attack.

In line two you mention that quoting Shakespeare is rarely if ever required during an interview. But of course most of us in the humanities would not reduce what we take to be so important in great literature to mere rote memorization. If Shakespeare and Plato make a difference in someone's life, it will be in a much more transformative fashion.

By line three you commit the fallacy of confusing a fact with how something should be: simply because businesses call the shots, assuming that they do, it doesn't follow that whatever they have decided is necessarily and thoroughly better than some of our other options. Is, in other words, does not imply ought.

And from that point onward the poor reasoning and bad grammar only get worse.

What makes it all the more depressing is that you, like some others, were actually arrogant in your point of view. That's one of the saddest things of all: listening to fellow human beings spout off opinions in a derisive, contemptous tone while communicating at the level of a 7th or 8th grader. In fact, if you hadn't been so arrogant I absolutely would not have critiqued your thinking so harshly, but your sardonic lack of respect for others calls out for some kind of honest rebuttal.

68. trendisnotdestiny - September 12, 2010 at 09:51 am

To all of those Corporatists: Homo Rhetoricus, Boobeirdo, Adjunct to Adminstrator & More Cowbell....

Would someone please alert me how our business education has made us better critical thinkers? We have so many resources, programs and avenues for the entrepreneurial academic in this culture found in economic departments and business models associated with growth industries in health science and technology. So my question to you is how come we are not any better at identifying real world financial problems like the ones I referred to in my earlier post (#52)?

Also, could you explain where YOU have been with helping others understand recent financial events? Let me provide you with one example that a humanities background provides a culture that have bought into the 'Corporatey Palin Goodness' of markets:

We all know that the publically funded and privately marketed bailouts for TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) was a approx. 700Billion. Remember, the system was about to collapse and they needed the public coffers to keep an insolvent private banking industry alive. This is common knowledge! What is not common knowledge is how the Banks benefitted from the other $12.8 Trillion made available to the banks that was not accessible to the public (in fact, we had to sue to find out the counterparties and beneficiaries as the banks claim in court that their businesses would be permanently affected if this news leaked out... see recent PBS show In The Know for further details)

Nonetheless, here is a more transparent list of how the bailouts were distributed:

THE FEDERAL RESERVE: $7.7 Trillion Billions ($)
1) Primary Credit Discount --------------- $110.74
2) Secondary Credit --------------- $ 0.19
3) Primary Dealer & Other --------------- $147.00
4) ABCP Liquidity --------------- $152.11
5) AIG Credit --------------- $ 60.00
6) Net Portfolio CP Funding -------------- $1,800.00
7) Maiden Lane (Bear Stearns) ------------ $ 29.50
8) Maiden Lane II (AIG) ------------- $ 22.50
9) Maiden Lane III (AIG) ------------- $ 30.00
10) Term Security Lending --------------- $250.00
11) Term Auction Facility --------------- $900.00
12) Securities Lending Overnight --------- $ 10.00
13) Term Asset-Backed Loan Facility ----- $900.00
14) Currency Swaps & Other Assets -------- $606.00
15) MMIFF --------------- $540.00
16) GSE Debt Purchases --------------- $600.00
17) GSE Mortgage Backed Securities ------- $1,000.00
18) Citigroup Bailout- Fed Portion ------- $220.40
19) Bank of American Bailout ------------ $ 87.20
20) Commitment to Buy Treasuries (Propping) $900.00

FDIC TOTAL: OVER $2 Trillion
1) Public-Private Investment ------------- $500.00
2) FDIC Liquidity Guarantees ------------- $1,400.00
3) GE ------------- $126.00
4) Citgroup ------------- $ 10.00
5) Bank of America ------------- $ 2.50

TREASURY TOTAL: $2.7 Trillion
1) TARP -------------- $700.00
2) Bank Tax Breaks -------------- $ 29.00
3) Bush Stimulus Package -------------- $168.00
4) Obama Stimulus Package -------------- $787.00
5) Treasury Exchange Stabilization ------- $ 50.00
6) Student Loan Purchases -------------- $ 60.00
7) Support of Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac --- $400.00
8) Line of Credit -------------- $500.00

HUD: $300 Billion
1) Hope for Homeowners FHA -------------- $300.00


So, my point here is that in the middle of the cesspool we call our economy that is propped up by public money after crisis after financial crisis over the past thirty years, well some of you corporatists might be in a position to enlighten some of us humanities' educated members of academe as to:

1) How a $12 Trillion Bank Bailout affects our next generation

2) How foreign wars have added 3 trillion dollars to deficit (Stiglitz & Bilmes, 2009)

3) How our problems with municipal, state, governmental, and private deficits have been engineered as a means to gut social security, medicare and social spending in higher education

4)How come the financial educators in this capitalist country have failed: personal and family finance, corporate and state governance, kick-the-can-down-the-road budgeting and tremendous amount of wasteful spending. Could someone educate us as to why we should not see this a purposeful consequences of income disparities, socialized losses/privatized gains, CEO Pay and the financial implementation of social darwinistic structures trying to replicate themselves into the host cell of academe?

Tell us (Oh corporate sellouts) about stuff than we don't already know about instead of the crap about sucking it up and working harder (anyone can spout off platitudes, but when are you going to pick up a shovel and truly pass on information people can use). At a time when 1 in 7 are in poverty, 1/5 adults have had a home foreclosed during the last decade and joblessness is over 20%, you might think that your business education would be something of value or is it just a credential in the its-who-you-know world of business acquaintances? You can defer to some sort of indifference, incomptence, or ideological mandate, but you must bear the paternity of the consequences of missing just about every major economic problems incurred over the last few decades while trumpeting the positives and showcasing your wealth....

Instead of calling on the death knell of the humanities, shouldn't we challenge ours/yours business educations in this culture? If we are so great at capitalism, then why have we gotten to this place of indebtedness(unless this too was perfectly planned and executed by those that stand to profit in whatever economy arises through flash trading, derivatives, short-selling using inside information and massive hedge fund bets).

Educate us as to why we should keep you around (other than threatening us with total disaster, no access to future credit and a jobs hiring freeze)... What makes you so important?

It seems that you and your friends recently needed $12.8 Trillion, maybe the risk of the humanities is that they are group who is most likely to find out all those fraudulent connections associated with business school ethics, wall street cutthroat tactics and how party A & B are to shift risk onto an unknowing party C without detection. Maybe it is you that should leave academe, not the humanists!

69. zefelius - September 12, 2010 at 11:32 pm

Good questions, Trendisnotdestiny...

70. beaming - September 15, 2010 at 04:37 pm

Thank you, trendisnotdestiny for teaching us a thing or two. The corporatists (and privileged people everywhere) NEVER admit how armed force (in the form of "discoveries," conquests, instigated wars, official murder, thievery and mayhem) is behind all of their "hard work" - see Confessions of an Economic Hitman. See Gandhi and MLK, Jr. (please go beyond the "I have a dream" excerpt) for how to deal with them non-violently. All of us want to know how and why, if economists know so much, the economy is way beyond inefficient at best and so destructive at worst. Without the humanities, who would think to ask these questions or understand their right to question authority, as well as the need to do so? Workers who are ignorant of history, who don't want to think complex thoughts and who can't express themselves are ideal for a world run by corporations but not for democracies that hope to solve the world's inequities. But then corporatists and the privileged would have you believe that war is a way to resolve conflicts, the poor are always with us, if you buy a lot of stuff you don't need you're helping the economy, the prospect of creating jobs should shut down all interest in the environment, it's too expensive to use our tax money for education and healthcare, if those people weren't so lazy and would just work harder, and on and on...

71. quare - October 04, 2010 at 05:31 pm

@11191210 et al.
"If you think po-mo is useless, consider the fact that the radical right has mastered its principles better than anyone - they have realized that you can make anything sound like a fact if you use the right language."

So true. But what is also true is that the same debate in different terms is addressed by Plato in a variety of his dialogues that deal with sophists who "make the weaker argument the stronger" vel sim. (e.g., Gorgias, Protagoras) and is taken up in the subsequent Latin rhetorical tradition, too.

What I'm trying to say here, folks, is bring back the Greek and the Latin. Don't try to make the humanities more "scientific" , for the "social sciences" will soon have their day, too: "post-social scientism" or whatever. The fundamental questions are all over in a variety of texts, places, and times, and it is the job of the humanities to ask them, to remind readers that they have been asked before, but that no one has come to a satisfactory answer. (Problem being, we all die eventually.)

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.