Discussing the “Crisis in the Humanities”

As someone who studied the humanities and not a STEM field (to the horror of my tiger parents), but has built a life and a living off of having higher education degrees in the humanities, I am always interested in reading pieces about “the crisis” in this particular field (as an aside, the crisis in STEM has been mostly revolved around how it lacks women).

This piece comes from our neighbors up north at the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE). Stephen Slemon, the president of ACCUTE, recently gave this speech in his opening remarks while on a panel at Ryerson University.

We meet tonight in the darkening shadow of a humanities crisis industry, and here are just a few of the recent headlines. “Humanities Fall From Favour.” “Prestige of Humanities at All-Time Low.” “Oh, the humanities. Big trouble, but there’s still some hope.”

Big trouble. Some hope. I’m about to argue that the humanities do make trouble, en route to social hope; that is their foundational purpose; and how they get there has nothing to do with mastery over a single object of study. We do not simply train to a given task. Years after you’ve forgotten that the mid-Victorian novel you studied in first-year English was set in some manor house called Thornfield Hall, you still remember discovering that you fell in love with that book not just because Jane Eyre was brave and admirable and deservedly Got Her Man, but because studying the book deeply made you understand all kinds of social systems, and then bring them together. The class system, marriage property laws, education policy, colonial history, the Evangelical movement, the nuclear family and its omissions, women and labour, bourgeois liberalism, proto-feminism … you forget those details but you remember that you had to put things together – interpretatively, critically – in order to understand. Maybe you remember that behind what you learned there was research, and that it really helped you get to the difficulty in the material. You certainly remember that it was one thing to have in place a whole series of informing social systems, another to assemble them into an explanatory narrative. You learn in the humanities that everything depends on how the narrative gets told.

The rest of his remarks are worth reading.

Being able to write well, think critically and problem solve, put things into context—all valuable! So even if you get a Ph.D. in Literature and decide it’s not for you, you’ll still have certain skill sets that can get you a six-figure job at a tech company (as I point to Cindy’s essay for the second time this week).

Also, I want to read Jane Eyre again.

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8 Comments / Post A Comment

samburger (#5,489)

It’s true! All I did in college was read lofty literature and high theory and now I am reporting six figures to the IRS! Hooray!

JMW333 (#6,159)

Mike, you say you’ve made a living off higher education degrees in the humanities, and I’m curious whether or not you consider a degree in journalism a humanities degree? (Or if you were referring to your undergrad degree.)

I ask because I’m a recent grad of a journalism school, and I specifically chose that major because while I loved English and History I wanted a more clear career path and specific job training with my subject of study. (It has been pointed out to me that choosing journalism for the career opportunities sounds ridiculous.) (Also I have no disrespect for humanities majors, I seriously admire one of my closest friends who plans on getting a Ph. D in literature.)

Anyway, I’m just curious whether you feel journalism falls under the humanities umbrella or if it’s something different?

Mike Dang (#2)

@JMW333 I studied it in grad school, yes, but the major was also offered when I was an undergrad in the Humanities department, so I would include it under that umbrella. Though I can also see an argument for it being under the umbrella of something like the social sciences.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Mike Dang I’d love it if more of journalism was under that umbrella. Also, original poster, if you’re studying journalism in school you’re getting the kind of professional and ethical instruction that makes a really worthwhile and sound journalist. So I could go either way!

JMW333 (#6,159)

@aetataureate The emphasis on professional/practical instruction is what made me feel like it didn’t fall under humanities so much, but when I think about all the ethical discussions I can see how it might have more in common with that line of study than I thought. Either way, I definitely feel like the combination of communication skills and ethics gave me a good educational foundation, whether I continue reporting forever or not.

Eric18 (#4,486)

Being able write well, think critically and problem solve, put things into context are not exclusive to humanities majors. There are plenty of humanities majors who are bad at the mentioned skills and plenty of STEM majors who excel at them (while also excelling in their STEM field).

And there are also alot of people who never went to college but can do these things.

aesir (#5,963)

Here’s what’s missing from these articles: you absolutely learn critical thinking, problem solving, and research/writing skills from the sciences too. Writing a mathematical proof requires critical thinking. Coding is problem solving. Publishing the results of an experiment requires all of those. Learning to think about things mathematically or quantitatively changes your life. The grading curve in STEM is notoriously less lenient, so students learn to be as rigorous as possible; they can’t afford not to be.

The problem with those studies that say that liberal arts graduates make more money 30 years later is two-fold: they use historical data to predict future outcomes, which is fine when you can assume that the world hasn’t changed. It has. The second thing is that liberal arts degrees typically tend to be more popular at the better universities; institutional prestige/quality tends to be correlated with future income, so this is a biased sample in the first place. You need to compare English majors at Harvard with Statistics majors at Harvard; not with “Business administration” majors at a random community college.

Which is not to say that humanities are inherently less worthwhile, or interesting, or necessary. But if you have the chops to get a STEM degree, do it. You get the best of both worlds. Go read in your off-time.

squishycat (#3,000)

@aesir Yeah, not so much, depending on the program. I have fellow students who couldn’t critically think their way out of a paper bag, or at least become exceptionally distressed when expected to. My university has a writing requirement for all graduates, so I’ve experienced samples of their writing as well, and it’s also often sub-par (not that the writing in published papers is necessarily all that great, either). All of these people will graduate, and will probably go on to do pretty well if they stick to their fields. They might “read in their off time”, but they won’t get out of it what someone who actually paid any attention at all to their courses in literature would. It’s only the best of both worlds if you already have the aptitude and interest for both.

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