Now that graduation is over and summer has begun, the focus in academic circles has shifted from controversial commencement speakers to whether or not a degree in the humanities is “worth it.” This is certainly not a new topic, but lately the talk has taken a serious turn, especially when one considers the massive loan debt that most college students and their families face upon graduation. The picture isn’t pretty. According to the College Board, public institutions cost on average $23,000 per year and private ones $45,000. It is estimated that total student debt in the US has surpassed one trillion dollars. Yes, trillion. Put that in the context of the GDP contracting by 2.9 percent in the first quarter of 2014 and unemployment remaining at 7 1/2 percent (much higher among 18-25-year-olds), and it’s easy to see how the humanities question is in the spotlight again.
What interests me is the role that students and recent graduates play in the debate. Unfortunately, that role, for the most part, is no role. What I hear and read are opinions from college presidents, arts & science school deans, consultants, educators, and professors about the need for critical thinking, analytical skills, and a generalist breadth of knowledge that transcends mere technical training. Education, they argue, is not job training. That’s fine, but neither should it be so detached from the job market that the number one complaint I hear from companies is the lack of preparedness of recent graduates.
The reality is that most employers are not going to pay to hear about The Aeneid or dialectical materialism or Derrida’s deconstruction of construction. Certainly, a new hire may wax eloquently about Tartuffe at a dinner party, but the world today runs on the exchange of goods and services. Business, as a colleague put it recently, is life. This is a man fluent in German and French who successfully brought performing arts into dialogue with business in his role as a business school dean. Many in the humanities still won’t even hear of such a thing, which is the reason Harvard’s business school is on the other side of the Charles River.
Here’s how I know that those who insist on the marketability of a humanities degree are wrong: I majored in English and minored in Philosophy & Religion as an undergraduate. I studied Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, Latin, Greek, and transformational grammar. And even though I graduated at the top of my class from a prestigious liberal arts school, at my first job I couldn’t figure out how to change the paper in a copy machine. I know what it’s like to be contemplating “The Rape of the Lock” while the executive trainee who studied management gets the salary, benefits, and position.
Although that was years ago, it is even more important today not to be solely a generalist. The reason is that, as my favorite theologian put it, ideas are a dime a dozen. What counts is execution, and a humanities education, sadly, leaves you to figure that out on your own. But companies are not giving awards for essays and subtle turns of phrase. They need people who are committed, competent, and creative, not in theory but in practice.
Let’s be honest. There is an element of elitism in the pro-humanities argument. Proponents believe that humanities students are well-rounded, critical, and display a healthy suspicion of inherited wisdom. These students should not be concerned with things as tawdry as money. After all, look at where Wall Street greed has gotten us (a favorite theme of Hollywood). But we are not living in Ancient Athens, concerned with the formation of an aristocratic ruling class. Our concern is with the sons and daughters of working and middle class people, many of whom find themselves one step ahead of the bill collector. It is a disservice to prepare these students for un- and under-employment.
This is not to suggest that education, particularly higher education, should be all skills-based. Not at all. Of course, there is a need to learn how to think, analyze, and create, but not at the expense of learning how to care for yourself and others. And please don’t tell me that studying humanities gives you the requisite discipline for learning how to survive. I’ve lived on enough breakfast cereal to know the truth.
Perhaps we have it backwards. We ought to be preparing undergraduates for employment, offering them rigorous but focused programs in which they have an opportunity to learn marketable skills that will help them compete on the global stage. Couldn’t someone who goes on later to study Latin learn code when younger? This is already happening. There’s a good chance your Web designer is, quite literally, younger than your shoes. Later, the employer could expand its continuing education program to include not just the CPA exam but an MFA or a master’s degree in French Literature. Are the themes of King Lear, Genesis, and even House of Cards understandable to most twenty-year-olds? They weren’t to me, and I was studying them with purpose and devotion.
All of which is reminiscent of the time I sat facing an exasperated clerk at a temporary agency. I had gone to her for help after pounding the pavement for months all over Manhattan looking for work. I recounted the points in my sterling resume and the penetrating insights of my essay on Whorfian semantics. Her only response was, “That’s nice. But can you type?”