What’s Wrong With the Humanities?

 

good_booksThe supply of people with PhDs in the humanities vastly exceeds the demand for them. Why?

The explanations for trouble in the humanities I see the most are:

1. People care too much about making money, not enough about the search for truth and beauty.

2. The Humanities disciplines caused their own problems by wandering off into fashionable theories of the liberal, relativistic, or goofily postmodern persuasion.

The first explanation sometimes involves criticisms of capitalism, and sometimes of Republican governors. The second explanation often appears in places like National Review’s Phi Beta Cons blog. A third explanation of this particular problem is pretty simple, and may not make it as easy for the left or right to toss blame at each other:

3. Too many universities have produced way too many humanities PhDs because universities look more prestigious when they have more PhD programs.

My own working theory is that all of these explanations are correct. Please note: I don’t think much of the first theory as a criticism of capitalism, though it might be a nice criticism of the reduction of the good life to capitalism alone (also criticized here, for example).

I might add that, even if the third theory carries the most weight as an explanation, I am a fan of the second theory, and I think it’s an important commentary on the humanities these days.

I might also ask, given the truth of the second theory, how much you can blame people if they pursue financial stability and a strong economy instead of studying these theories?

What say the Ricochetti?

Theory 1?

Theory 2?

Theory 3?

Theory 4? (Please provide in comments.)

There are 96 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @SaintAugustine

    Attribution: I’m sure some of these thoughts are not my own.  I can’t tell you where I got them all, but Phi Beta Cons is probably in the background.

    (And did I get that word right–Ricochetti?)

    • #1
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Mark Boone: (And did I get that word right–Ricochetti?)

    Oh, dear, watch out for Misthiocracy. He will insist that since Ricochet is a French word, it should have a French ending, rather than Italian, so Ricochetois or Ricochetoisie, to be like bourgeoisie.

    • #2
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Now, on to your real question, it is a simple matter of economics: supply and demand. Colleges are producing more humanities Ph. Ds than the market demands. This is true. Second, the demand is artificially kept low by union contracts for professors. This produces a dichotomy where well-connected humanities Ph.Ds might get employed at a university, earn tenure, and make the big bucks, while many others wind up in other careers. Many wind up as adjunct faculty or eeking out a living as writers, editors, and the like: harlots, pool sharks, politicians, you know the types.

    Is it a factor that there are some fields in the humanities like _____ Studies rather than just philosophy, classics, languages, etc? Of course. Of what use is a Ph.D. in ______ Studies unless one is to teach it at the university level? It certainly is not applicable to real life; whereas, history or philosophy can be…somewhat.

    So, I’m taking 2 and 3 and calling #1 a pile of #2. People who are not sucking on the public teat at first, second, or third hand can see where there is value and where there is not.

    • #3
  4. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @SaintAugustine

    Arahant:

    Mark Boone: (And did I get that word right–Ricochetti?)

    Oh, dear, watch out for Misthiocracy. He will insist that since Ricochet is a French word, it should have a French ending, rather than Italian, so Ricochetois or Ricochetoisie, to be like bourgeoisie.

    I would have thought Latin, and Ricochettus (masculine) or Ricochetta (feminine) for the singular.

    • #4
  5. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Mark Boone:I would have thought Latin, and Ricochettus (masculine) or Ricochetta (feminine) for the singular.

    Well, Ricochet is definitely French, and quite an interesting origin it has. But, if you wish to class up the joint with Latin endings, feel free. You will get a tut-tut from Misthiocracy, but he’s only a Canadian, so nothing to fash yourself over.

    • #5
  6. user_554634 Moderator
    user_554634
    @MikeRapkoch

    It’s too late at night for a detailed response, but I would argue that the humanities are dead principally because, in a world where there are no transcendent principles to guide freedom–most importantly the freedom to restrain one’s choices and actions–there is no need to waste time on the search for higher meaning. Here’s David Bentley Hart on the subject:

    We live in an age whose chief moral value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the absolute liberty of personal volition, the power of each of us to choose what he or she believes, wants, needs, or must possess; our culturally most persuasive models of human freedom are unambiguously voluntarist and, in a rather debased and degraded way, Promethean; the will, we believe, is sovereign because unpremised, free because spontaneous, and this is the highest good

    • #6
  7. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @SaintAugustine

    Mike Rapkoch:It’s too late at night for a detailed response, but I would argue that the humanities are dead principally because, in a world where there are no transcendent principles to guide freedom–most importantly the freedom to restrain one’s choices and actions–there is no need to waste time on the search for higher meaning. Here’s David Bentley Hart on the subject:

    We live in an age whose chief moral value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the absolute liberty of personal volition, the power of each of us to choose what he or she believes, wants, needs, or must possess; our culturally most persuasive models of human freedom are unambiguously voluntarist and, in a rather debased and degraded way, Promethean; the will, we believe, is sovereign because unpremised, free because spontaneous, and this is the highest good

    Early afternoon for me, in fact.

    Relating to the reduction of ethics to the sovereign will of the individual, Mike, did you see this one?

    • #7
  8. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Perhaps a theory #4: The older areas of the humanities, such as history, philosophy, languages, literatures, etc., dealt with systems. In today’s world, most of these subjects are hobbies. If one is good with systems, one is going into something computer related. It uses many of the same skills, strengths, and proclivities. Which pays more? Learning the French language and literature and being a scholar of the Romance languages, or learning and applying computer languages? There is much of the dealing in the abstract and arbitrary to either pursuit.

    A college professor or someone with a doctoral-level degree used to be held in very high regard. In Spain, a man with a doctorate could address the king while covered, a privilege not even vouchsafed all the nobles. But America has always scoffed a bit at formal education and titles. And it gets worse as the “eggheads” don’t relate well to the daily life and concerns of the average Joe. The respect is not nearly as high as it was a generation or three ago.

    Together, it means they aren’t useful to Americans. Is this a new theory? Or a combination of your three?

    • #8
  9. Ball Diamond Ball Member
    Ball Diamond Ball
    @BallDiamondBall

    Ricochetheads. Ricochetards.

    • #9
  10. Ball Diamond Ball Member
    Ball Diamond Ball
    @BallDiamondBall

    Everybody wants a pony. I want to be paid for sitting around and being smart, so I’ll major in an opinion-based field and either get good opinions or get good at defending bad ones.
    Hmmm, looks like there’s more money in defending bad ones.

    • #10
  11. CandE Member
    CandE
    @CandE

    Do ya’ll ever sleep?

    -E

    • #11
  12. user_521942 Member
    user_521942
    @ChrisWilliamson

    Why all the humanities Ph.D.s? Math.

    • #12
  13. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @SaintAugustine

    CandE:Do ya’ll ever sleep?

    -E

    It’s 4 PM for me.  I work here, and live here most of the year.

    • #13
  14. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    I lean towards all 3.

    I generally view them as warehouses for undeservedly smug stupid people to feel better about themselves.  I guess if I ran a bookstore/coffee-shop I could advertise free schadenfreude with every purchase.

    • #14
  15. CandE Member
    CandE
    @CandE

    Mark Boone:

    CandE:Do ya’ll ever sleep?

    -E

    It’s 4 PM for me. I work here, and live here most of the year.

    Links broken.  I’m guessing you’re in India, right?  How the heck did a Southern Baptist end up over there?

    -E

    • #15
  16. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @SaintAugustine

    Upon advice of someone later down in the thread, information in this comment has been overwritten.

    Perhaps overly cautious, but harmless I am sure.

    • #16
  17. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @SaintAugustine

    Overwritten here as well.  I don’t know how to delete comments.

    • #17
  18. user_653084 Member
    user_653084
    @SalvatorePadula

    #4: We never really needed that many Ph.D.s in the humanities to begin with; just a sufficient number to teach undergraduate humanities courses and to train the next generation of humanities professors.

    • #18
  19. Ball Diamond Ball Member
    Ball Diamond Ball
    @BallDiamondBall

    Mark Boone:

    CandE:

    Mark Boone:

    CandE:Do ya’ll ever sleep?

    -E

    It’s 4 PM for me. I work here, and live here most of the year.

    Links broken. I’m guessing you’re in India, right? How the heck did a Southern Baptist end up over there?

    -E

    But please do me a favor and don’t mention it outside of Ricochet! The information is available online, but I don’t want to draw any unnecessary attention to myself out there on the public internet.

    Delete your comments.  Everything here is public — intermittently.

    • #19
  20. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @SaintAugustine

    Ball Diamond Ball:

    Delete your comments. Everything here is public — intermittently.

    Thanks!  I guess I’ll just have to be slightly less cautious than I like, or let people rely on those links.

    • #20
  21. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    I’ll tackle Item #1:

    I don’t think it’s a matter of people caring too much about making money, but a matter of expecting large incomes in a market (think supply and demand) where there is a glut of people with arts & humanities degrees.  I would tell anyone getting a humanities degree to keep one eye on what kind of job to expect upon graduation, and how much it’s going to cost to get there, and decide if it’s worth it.  If so, then go for it!  Just realize that your first hybrid car is going to be a Prius, not a Tesla . . .

    • #21
  22. user_86050 Member
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    The fact that we’re even having this discussion is telling. It shows that quite a few people are unaware that higher education was originally intended for a different purpose. Higher education wasn’t originally intended to prepare you for a job, and society didn’t originally use colleges as a credentialing system.

    The original purpose of higher education was learning for learning’s sake.

    To be a quality thinker meant that you had been trained in seven arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Notice that none of these were intended to be pursued individually; instead, it was the combination of all seven that made you an “educated” person. Once you were a trained thinker, then you could go on to find an occupation.

    These days, however, that model of learning is a square peg in a round hole. The current education system is much more a social engine for preparing a workforce. And in turn, that assumes that your training must be targeted for a specific career. So when a student enters college and sees a philosophy course, he can’t help but wonder who makes a career out of philosophy? (Not a high paying one, anyway.)  Unless the university is deliberately following the ancient model of education (i.e., training a person to think, not just for a specific job), the liberal arts department is just a third wheel.

    And what’s worse is when ersatz and goofy “studies” are lumped into the liberal arts, because their subjects also aren’t targeted for any career. They’re intended to be “consciousness-raising;” but instead of educating, they’re really indoctrinating. They don’t teach you how to think, they try to impose what you should think.

    The whole train wreck leaves the humanities a mess.

    • #22
  23. Lucy Pevensie Member
    Lucy Pevensie
    @LucyPevensie

    I’m plunking predominantly for 2, but with a smattering of 4, which I will explain below.

    As far as number 2 goes, I was brought up to believe that education had to do with learning about Western (and only secondarily nonWestern) history, literature, and philosophy.  Even by the time I came through college (now 30 years ago–gasp), it was harder and harder to get that deep and wide education in any normal college’s humanities programs.  I kind of wish that I had had the nerve to step away from “normal” for a few years and go to St. John’s College to get that grounding, but I was way too conventional at that age and too worried about my future to do so. At this stage, I gather that most humanities departments have pretty much given up all pretense of teaching anything but things like “Critical Approaches to Visual Representation: Identification in the Cinema,”  and “Renaissance Literature: Performances of Gender” to quote from my alma mater’s course catalogue.

    My number 4 is as follows:  I was taught as a child that education and job training were two different things, and that one should know, going into an academic program, which was its purpose.  For all kinds of historical reasons, we have conflated education and job training.  And this has been a disaster.

    People go into college thinking that their college education should prepare them for work.  Then they major in comparative literature.  There’s nothing wrong with majoring in comparative literature if you understand that this is part of making you a good citizen and a cultivated member of society, but if you think it’s going to get you a job, you will be surprised.  And 20-year-olds don’t know a lot about the world. When they realize that there are no jobs for people with only a bachelor’s degree in Comp. Lit., they look around to find people who started with bachelor’s degrees in Comp. Lit. and are working, and the people they see are their professors, who got Ph.D.s in Comp. Lit.  So they think that’s the viable career path.

    • #23
  24. user_517406 Member
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    I think all of these reasons are part of the picture.  I also think that people want to do what they love, especially young, idealistic people with no other plan in life.  They love literature or history or philosophy and they think they might be one of the few who gets to spend their life writing about what they love and passing the knowledge they value on to the next generation.  Universities not only like the prestige of graduate programs, they like the very inexpensive labor they get from grad students, who do a lot of the professors’ grading and some of the teaching.  Also, everybody likes to have a few minions around.  I know–I finished a PhD at a major CA university in 2011.  Most of my classmates got jobs.  I didn’t really try very hard because I need to be here where my husband is, and since I’m a Mom and don’t have to make a living, I get to do what most scholars want to do–write.

    My daughter is in a similar situation. She has a PhD in philosophy from Cornell, but has not secured a job because her professor was not very helpful for one thing, but also because she needs to be where her professor husband is, so isn’t flexible about where she can live.  She’s developed a nice little career as a pundit, though, starting here on Rico.  It’s too bad she won’t be a teacher because she’s very good at it, but she’s enjoying writing and defending conservatism, and it’s work that she can do from home while caring for her 3, almost 4, darling boys.

    • #24
  25. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @SaintAugustine

    CandE, after a bit more consideration I think I should just answer the questions but not in a lot of detail.

    How?  Usually on a Boeing 777.

    Where?  You’re off by about 30 miles.  Look up Forman Christian College.

    • #25
  26. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @SaintAugustine

    Well, I can’t reply to every comment as it deserves.  Not enough time.

    Lucy Pevensie:At this stage, I gather that most humanities departments have pretty much given up all pretense of teaching anything but things like “Critical Approaches to Visual Representation: Identification in the Cinema,” and “Renaissance Literature: Performances of Gender” to quote from my alma mater’s course catalogue.

    Most? Maybe.  I can’t say for sure.  But to be fair to Humanities, there are still a lot of professors and departments and some universities where the primary objective is still the good old fundamentals: teach Latin, teach Logic, teach students how to read Plato and Shakespeare, etc.

    And 20-year-olds don’t know a lot about the world. When they realize that there are no jobs for people with only a bachelor’s degree in Comp. Lit., they look around to find people who started with bachelor’s degrees in Comp. Lit. and are working, and the people they see are their professors, who got Ph.D.s in Comp. Lit. So they think that’s the viable career path.

    What a great number 4!

    And to Merina Smith I say, well done, both you and your daughter!

    Stad, jolly good.  I dig.

    KC Mulville, jolly good.  I dig.

    • #26
  27. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Hypothesis: Compared to the past, a Humanities degree is phenomenally easy to obtain.

    It’s often simply a matter of reading the “correct” books, memorizing the “correct” opinions, and writing the occasional semi-lucid paper.

    There is no longer any requirement to learn logic, rhetoric, or Latin/Greek, and there is precious little genuine research required.

    The Social Sciences at least require that candidates learn statistics and conduct some original research in order to succeed.

    The really top-of-the-line Humanities grads blur the distinction between the two fields, by applying statistical methods to their field of study, but that’s not a requirement for a PhD.

    • #27
  28. Ball Diamond Ball Member
    Ball Diamond Ball
    @BallDiamondBall

    I used to think that restaurant manager positions had a requirement for a degree in the humanities.

    • #28
  29. user_423975 Coolidge
    user_423975
    @BrandonShafer

    #2 and #3.  I would also add #4: Humanities tend to be easy course work.

    • #29
  30. user_423975 Coolidge
    user_423975
    @BrandonShafer

    KC Mulville:The fact that we’re even having this discussion is telling. It shows that quite a few people are unaware that higher education was originally intended for a different purpose. Higher education wasn’t originally intended to prepare you for a job, and society didn’t originally use colleges as a credentialing system.

    The original purpose of higher education was learning for learning’s sake.

    To be a quality thinker meant that you had been trained in seven arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Notice that none of these were intended to be pursued individually; instead, it was the combination of all seven that made you an “educated” person. Once you were a trained thinker, then you could go on to find an occupation.

    These days, however, that model of learning is a square peg in a round hole. The current education system is much more a social engine for preparing a workforce. And in turn, that assumes that your training must be targeted for a specific career. So when a student enters college and sees a philosophy course, he can’t help but wonder who makes a career out of philosophy? (Not a high paying one, anyway.) Unless the university is deliberately following the ancient model of education (i.e., training a person to think, not just for a specific job), the liberal arts department is just a third wheel.

    And what’s worse is when ersatz and goofy “studies” are lumped into the liberal arts, because their subjects also aren’t targeted for any career. They’re intended to be “consciousness-raising;” but instead of educating, they’re really indoctrinating. They don’t teach you how to think, they try to impose what you should think.

    The whole train wreck leaves the humanities a mess.

    I agree with you except when it comes to a PhD.  I could be wrong, but I would regard a graduate degree as designed to be for a career.  However, the other problem with getting a degree just to be “educated” now is the severe increase in the cost of getting a degree which is exacerbated by getting a degree in the Humanities which don’t tend to lend to high paying jobs.

    • #30

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.