Hundreds of articles have appeared in the last decade, in both the mainstream press and publications focused on higher education, addressing the “crisis” in the humanities, which is generally understood to mean a persistent devaluing of these subjects. Although the emphasis on crisis language seems to be waning somewhat, there has been a persistent attempt to identify the causes of the cataclysmic shifts in enrollments away from departments of classics, English, history, philosophy, and religious studies–the disciplines that might most commonly be understood as “the humanities.” These shifts have of course coexisted with sharp decreases in funding for such disciplines. The crisis has been defined in various terms, worth enumerating:
- the presumed-abysmal job prospects for graduates with bachelor’s degrees in humanities fields;
- the declining value placed on humanities knowledge relative to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields;
- critical public perceptions of the humanities as irrelevant;
- the increasing use of adjuncts in higher education, which leaves humanities PhDs far more likely to have to seek alternate careers than to become the professors they trained to be;
- the larger problem of the exorbitant cost of higher education;
- deep disparities in both access to and successful completion of higher education for working-class students and students of color;
- the ivory-tower elitism and/or esotericism of humanities disciplines.
These issues are, certainly, overlapping ones. Public perceptions of the value of the humanities are tied, at least anecdotally, to questions of employability, for example. Every English major has heard at some point, “a degree in English doesn’t lead to a job.” And yet, anecdotes also tell us that “businesses” love to hire people with humanities degrees because they have excellent critical reading and thinking skills and are articulate on paper.
Both, or neither, may be true as generalities.
It is also certainly the case that spokespeople for the humanities–public intellectuals and/or advocates whose writing reaches wide audiences through national periodicals and online venues–are, paradoxically, not always as eloquent as they might be in articulating why the humanities are valuable. Some resist the notion that a defense is necessary, on the grounds that the humanities have intrinsic value. Some defend the humanities by suggesting that they are good basis for big business, economic or public policy, the practice of law, and other careers that feel like a “sell out” to the very people who see intrinsic value in humanities texts and ways of thinking. And some produce narratives of crisis that unfortunately substitute hand-wringing for action: it is far easier to lament, even eloquently to lament, “the death of the humanities” than it is to try to figure out how to resuscitate them.
This site grew in part out of my own work teaching the Senior Seminar for English majors at multiple institutions. I wanted my students to examine carefully the state of the conversations currently circulating–to sort out what the threads of the conversations are, what the key positions on these issues are, and what their own positions on those issues might be. As students are planning their lives after college, trying to imagine “what they will do with that English major,” and seeking meaningful ways of making a difference in their worlds, I find it useful to talk in concrete terms about the relationship between academic study and non-academic work. To think about how we value different kinds of labor. To try to define what we learn from studying the humanities, and what the relationship is between a project of considering content and one of gaining skills.
In my capstone classes, we take up questions like: Are the humanities really in crisis? If so, what are the key problems? What might be the most productive directions for trying to solve those problems? And how might we insert ourselves publicly into these conversations in meaningful ways to help shape the future of the humanities?
- For an outline (perpetually growing) of articles on these issues, Search the library of articles collected here
- The Value of the Liberal Arts is another site collecting similar kinds of articles. Some things are linked in both places, but it’s also a great resource to browse.
- Dear English Major is full of practical pieces about what to do with an English major, how to market yourself for different sorts of careers, the value of an English major, and similar topics.