People who gravitate towards subjects broadly contained under the label “the humanities” tend to do so because we are intellectually curious–because we love to read, debate, think deeply, learn, investigate. We don’t embrace the question “what are you going to do with that degree?” because we hear its unspoken premise that “that degree” is a “useless” one. Instead, we get defensive: inquiry itself is an end. There is value in learning. One does not have to quantify a job trajectory in order to be doing something meaningful with one’s mind.
As a person who finds herself looking up random things I’ve just heard of, and want to know more about, multiple times a day, I sympathize with that defensive stance: yes, learning is fascinating in and of itself. As a professor, I admire students who are able to follow paths of inquiry into degrees that are not job titles. And as a literature professor who often finds herself trying to articulate the value of studying old books and past moments in time, I very much want to defend both the liberal arts model of education and the value of humanities study for producing flexible, creative thinkers who have the ability to go into a dizzying number of directions after college.
I am also highly conscious that to pursue a degree in an English department is a kind of privilege. It is far easier to do if one hails from a family with a long history of college education, with its corollary assumption that education may be a means to an as-yet-undefined end, than it is if one grows up in the precarious economy of a post-industrial city. For students who are the first in their families to go to college, pursuing a degree in English may feel like an enormous risk: what does that degree get you? Accounting, for example, makes more sense. Then you can become an accountant. But no one will employ you as an English. And you don’t want to be a teacher. So what are you going to do with that degree?
To my mind, this is precisely why it’s important for faculty in departments like English, History, Philosophy, or Religious Studies not to imply that career is a dirty word, that it is filthy lucre to need to support oneself. It is not selling out to wonder in what capacity one will be employed after college. It does not undercut the value of intellectual pursuits as improving the mind to ask what kinds of skills result from sustained study of literature and languages and history. Indeed, only the most infinitesimal proportion of college students will not have to get a job once they complete their degrees.
I find it distressing when I hear faculty staunchly resist the notion that we ought to try to define what one gets from studying literature–even though one of the latest Twitter brouhahas is over whether we should thus have to justify our own existence. I have read plenty of opinion pieces defending the value of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. And I have seen some fraction of this resistance even amongst my own students–in their reluctance to visit the career center, for example, because the very name smacks of the commercialism that they want to resist.
Networking, we have to teach our students, doesn’t automatically make you a corporate shill. And recognizing that deep reading and careful thought produces skills as well as knowledge doesn’t make you a sell-out.
Indeed, valuing knowledge, appreciating the richness of language, and celebrating intellectual curiosity truly MUST NOT be set up in a binary against earning a living, or we will elitism our way right out of our own jobs.
It is a principled stand to say that we shouldn’t have to justify our existence to legislatures or administrations by trotting out the old saws of “critical thinking” (which, anyway, plenty of disciplines teach). But being unwilling to admit that there are skills, in addition to knowledge, that come from reading a wide range of authors does not make us pure. It makes us blindered to the realities students face.
We ought to trumpet what students gain from sustained study of literature and history and philosophy, and we ought to help give them ways to articulate this too. There are skills in deep and sustained research, an ability to ferret out productive connections between apparently disconnected things, to synthesize vast swaths of material into digestible key concepts, to make meticulous arguments based on actual evidence, to write coherently and persuasively. More specifically, in English departments, we hone attention to the nuances of language, which not only means appreciating the craft of a poem but also being able to point out how language supports unconscious but pervasive bias, where it carries power, whose voices a particular venue or genre lifts up or ignores and why that matters in the context of a cultural moment.
The textual and cultural attention to detail that deep literary study fosters is precisely what more people need right now, as we watch (for example) Congress declare Juneteenth a national holiday while simultaneously refusing to pass voting rights legislation. This is perhaps an example of irony (ask an English major). Or, more cynically, it is a placating tactic (talk to a poli sci major). Or it is yet another a dangerous example of people in power retaining their power in any way they can, by disenfranchising the masses (seek out a historian, lit scholar, or philosopher for more on this precedent and how such strategies plays out).
The United States is at a crisis point of circulating disinformation, craven politics, and a dwindling sense of individual obligation to do anything towards the public good. The departments that fall under the humanities umbrella have so much to teach about these issues–both in terms of content and in terms of skills. If we want public change, we ought to be shouting that to the skies and trying to pull in students in droves.