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The Fear of Being Useful: Inside Higher Ed on humanities degrees and (un)employment

By Harriet Staff

Inside Higher Ed wades into the ongoing debate about whether humanities majors are doomed to lives of crappy jobs and ramen noodles in an age when higher education is increasingly focused on equipping students with marketable professional skills. (Who cares if you can recite the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English when we're in the middle of a recession? etc., etc.).

The article, by Paul Jay and Gerald Graff, begins by outlining the terms of the debate as they see it, writing that defenders of the humanities fall broadly into two camps: the traditionalists (who argue that "emphasizing professional skills would betray the humanities' responsibility to honor the great monuments of culture for their own sake") and the revisionists (who argue that "emphasizing the practical skills of analysis and communication that the humanities develop would represent a sellout, making the humanities complicit with dominant social values and ideologies"). What the defenders seem to agree on is that the humanities should remain defiantly separate from the marketplace, but Inside Higher Ed thinks that's a mistake:

What is needed for the humanities in our view is neither an uncritical surrender to the market nor a disdainful refusal to be sullied by it, but what we might call a critical vocationalism, an attitude that is receptive to taking advantage of opportunities in the private and public sectors for humanities graduates that enable those graduates to apply their training in meaningful and satisfying ways. We believe such opportunities do exist.

They point to a number of encouraging trends (Google will hire 6,000 people this year— around 4,000 from the humanities; up to %40 of people running Fortune 500 companies are liberal arts graduates; the growth of digital humanities as a field). They write:

We believe it is time to stop the ritualized lamentation over the crisis in the humanities and get on with the task of making them relevant in the 21st century. Such lamentation only reveals the inability of many humanists to break free of a 19th-century vision of education that sees the humanities as an escape from the world of business and science. As Cathy Davidson has forcefully argued in her new book, Now You See It, this outmoded way of thinking about the humanities as a realm of high-minded cultivation and pleasure in which students contemplate the meaning of life is a relic of the industrial revolution with its crude dualism of lofty spiritual art vs. mechanized smoking factories, a way of thinking that will serve students poorly in meeting the challenges of the 21st century.

Read the full article here.  And for the number-minded, click here for a chart of unemployment rates by college major — which reveals that you should go ahead and study whatever you want. Except for architecture.

Originally Published: January 10th, 2012