Oh, the Humanities!

“Literature” by James Koehnline (2007)

[This was an assignment for the Rhetoric class I was taking via Coursera. I passed. Whew.]

“Stay Out of School.”

That was the warning Aasif Mandvi issued in a segment on the May 9 The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He produced case-in-point TJ, newly graduated, now $170,000 in debt – and unemployed. Career advisor Marty Nemko told Aasif: “For many more people than in decades past, college is the wrong choice. Those who were average students in high school who went into college, they ended up doing jobs they could’ve done straight out of high school, like selling extended warranties. Or they are bartenders.”

Assif went with that; it is, after all, a comedy show: “Wow, I always assumed they had a bartending major.”

“I think that’s called English literature,” Nemko quipped, one-upping the comedian.

Forbes has a lot of statistics that support Nemko’s point of view: “60% Of College Grads Can’t Find Work In Their Field,” a March 2012 headline warned. And just last week they doubled down: “Half Of College Grads Are Working Jobs That Don’t Require A Degree.

Now states are getting into the act. Florida Governor Rick Scott considered keeping state college tuition level for the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), while raising them for the humanities: “The message from Tallahassee could not be blunter,” wrote Lizette Alvarez in her New York Times article about the proposal. “Give us engineers, scientists, health care specialists and technology experts. Do not worry so much about historians, philosophers, anthropologists and English majors.” Last January, in an interview on Bill Bennet’s “Morning in America” radio show, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory said he’s asked his staff to look at legislation to change the way funds are appropriated, to base that funding on “how many jobs you’re getting people into.”

Is all this hysteria necessary?

Statistics are funny things; pick the right ones, and you can use them to prove just about anything. Where do these statistics come from, anyway? Marty Nemko doesn’t quote any sources; he seems to be relying on his experience as a career advisor. The Forbes statistics come from job placement firm Adecco and a consulting firm’s survey of 4900 students who used educational materials from Chegg. These are valuable sources; but do they tell the whole story?

The Atlantic, on the other hand, used Bureau of Labor Statistics for its article: “ If College Leads to Jobs, Why Are So Many Young College Grads Unemployed?” and discovered something interesting: “It’s always a tougher job market for young people, including college graduates.” Add in a recession, and yes, the rate of unemployment for new college grads has risen faster over the past five years – but it’s also done so for everyone else. And the category with the slowest increase in unemployment has been… college graduates. The ones who were in the workforce already.

Now, granted, we don’t know what those who don’t show up on unemployment charts are doing. I have no doubt lots of English Lit majors are tending bar. I also have no doubt that STEM fields are growing and, at least in the short term, offer better financial prospects. But as someone who has always, even as a business systems computer programmer and database administrator, stood with my nose pressed up against the high-tech glass, aching to get in, to play math and science with the cool kids (and nerds are the coolest kids around, always have been) – I can tell you, it isn’t necessarily a choice. Do you really want a poet curing cancer? Or a sociologist writing air traffic control software? I can personally guarantee you don’t want me designing upgrades to the national power grid.

Are the humanities really so useless? Turns out, Condoleezza Rice doesn’t think so, as Cynthia Haven reports:

“I think we’re a bit on the defensive about the humanities and social sciences,” said Rice. “I myself am a social scientist and a musician. I can’t understand why we are on the defensive.”
…she said we must help students “to understand that we have a past, are living in the present, and hope for a better future. One has to know something about how human beings have addressed important issues in the past.”
“We also need to understand us. We are, as Americans, losing the sense of us,” she said. “One way not to fear they is to have a strong sense of us.”
In the era of texting and twitter, many students have a reduced capacity to “use evidence to support and make an argument.”… She argued for a more rigorous training in writing, pushing students to go beyond what they feel and believe to articulate what they know and have learned. “The well-argued, well-written two-pagers can make a difference,” she said – even with a U.S. president.

~~ reported by Cynthia Haven on Book Haven

The setting for Rice’s comments was a conference titled “The Humanities & Social Sciences for International Relations, National Security and Global Competitiveness” held at Stanford last fall for twenty-six attendees from such fields as the military, business, and academia, where retired General, former Ambassador to Afghanistan, and Fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation Karl Eikenberry put the value of the humanities this way: “You can’t preserve something you don’t understand. You can’t defend what you don’t know. If you aspire to be a transnational bridge, you have to be grounded on both sides of the river.” Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Kennedy said: “Dealing with ambiguity is the essence of the humanities. Interpretation, reconciliation, appreciating the points of origins of different positions – humanities are at home with ambiguity. It is our stock and trade.” Considering the ambiguity of the modern world – a world in which we seem to have a hard time distinguishing between friend and foe – that sounds like a good skill to have.

So what’s going on here?

I think it’s interesting that Forbes and the career advisors, not to mention the governors, seem to lean towards one side of things – far, far away from the liberal arts – while the Atlantic, a general-interest publication, and Stanford find value in them. Could this be rooted in something other than concern for college grads?

I think it could. I think it could in three ways.

First, there may be a natural bias. Forbes looks at business owners, especially medium-to-large business owners; The Atlantic looks at a broader swathe of American society, and, by the way, might be staffed by people more willing to do nitty-gritty reading and research rather than grab someone who has a great sound bite – that’s what Liberal Arts majors are taught to do, after all: provide textual evidence for their opinions. As for the Stanford conference, well, first, it’s Stanford, and second, it wasn’t a conference titled “Scrap the Humanities and Send Those Losers to Dental Assistant Training.”

Second, if computer programmers and biotech engineers are suddenly a dime a dozen, won’t that reduce labor costs for corporations? Could Forbes be more worried about the corporate bottom line than the unemployed graduate? Could the job placement professionals offering quotes and stats be hoping for more low-hanging fruit – clients who can be easily and quickly placed – resulting in more placements and more fees?

And third: if no one’s left to analyze an argument or look for nuance or see beyond the sound bites and dig for supporting or refuting evidence; if no one knows about the Armenian Holocaust or the Belgian Congo or the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades; if no one understands the implications behind words like “diaspora” or “partition” or the origins of Dadaism or what Wagner had to do with WWII or which edition of Huckleberry Finn you might want to avoid; if we aren’t encouraged to find associations between science and pop culture and politics, to remember our history so we don’t repeat it, to think critically: don’t we become more manageable as a labor force? More persuadable as an electorate? Doesn’t this channel those who must borrow for an education into fields where they’ll be safely tucked away from political discourse in labs and computer rooms, leaving the opinion-shaping and leadership, leaving the thinking, to those who were able to afford an education of ideas?

Yes, this is heading into tinfoil-hat territory. I’ve ignored the impact the increasing cost and decreasing funding of education and, for that matter, the increasing cost of living relative to earning power which I suspect may be at the root of all this. But I think we’ve entered into a very dangerous shift when we start measuring the benefits of education in terms of immediate employment opportunities. Even though the impetus behind public primary education in the first place was churning out a work force for the leaders properly educated in private schools, we should’ve moved beyond Horace Mann by now. It’s always been a bad idea to “track” secondary school students into the either-or of academics / vo-tech; it’s an even worse idea to extend that to higher education.

Repressing education – true education, as opposed to job training – has a long history in Western Civilization (and probably in world civilization as well, but I have to draw the line somewhere), possibly dating back to Plato’s exclusion of poets from his Republic. In her doctoral-thesis-turned book Humanist and Scholastic Poetics: 1250-1500 (Bucknell University Press, 1981), Concetta Carestia Greenfield traces the practice of keeping the riff-raff away from the liberal arts (which, by the way, classically include arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy) through the late Middle Ages. She gives a nod to the Classical period, though, via St. Augustine:

As for poets, Augustine himself says that poets’ fables tell many lies and hardly hide any truths at all (De civ. Dei 2.14). They certainly lie when they speak of religious matters, as Virgil is held to have done. It may be that the devil possesses their minds an speaks through them in order to keep mortals the slaves of evil. Some of the liberal arts are admitted, such as grammar and arithmetic, yet they must be approached with caution lest they corrupt the mind.

~~ Concetta Carestia Greenfield. Humanist and Scholastic Poetics: 1250-1500 (Bucknell University Press, 1981) p. 154

This repression gets really serious as the Church grows. By 1405, Cardinal Giovanni Dominici’s best-seller “Lucula noctis” advocated restricting the liberal arts to those who, in the eyes of the Church, at least, can be trusted with them:

Dominici concludes that a Christian can use the liberal arts only if they are put to good use, that is, if they are used for the preservation of society and the understanding of Scripture; for only in these circumstances do they speak to matters of substance or faith. Access to these disciplines should be limited to those few confirmed in faith, for only those with their faith firmly in hand will not falter in distinguishing between pagan and Christian doctrines.

~~ Concetta Carestia Greenfield. Humanist and Scholastic Poetics: 1250-1500 (Bucknell University Press, 1981) p. 154

That probably wouldn’t fly in 21st century America (at least, not yet… stay tuned). But what might work is raising tuition for non-STEM disciplines. Scaring seventeen-year-olds – and their parents, who are paying the tuition and maybe looking forward to converting their rooms to dens or art studios or mancaves) – away from history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and, above all, literature, music, and art.

[Might be a good time to throw in the legend about Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe: that when he met the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” It’s a legend; there’s no evidence Lincoln ever said this (though he did meet Ms. Stowe). The point is this: it didn’t become a legend, and a lasting one at that – not to mention a commemorative sculpture commissioned from artist Bruno Lucchesi by the City of Hartford, CT, in 2006 – because people are unaware of the power of literature.]

The very word “educate” comes from the Latin for “to bring out, lead forth,” not from whatever the Latin is for “employable.” Education is supposed to do more than train you for the workday; it’s supposed to help with the whole 24 hours, for all of your 78.64 years.

There’s nothing more dangerous to the power elite than someone who knows how to think. Rage against the machine: be a Humanitarian, whatever your major.

Better yet: hire one. She may be able to prevent the next great war.

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One response to “Oh, the Humanities!

  1. Pingback: BASS 2013: Elizabeth Tallent, “The Wilderness” from Threepenny Review, Spring 2012 | A Just Recompense

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