Are the Humanities Dead, or Are Academic Programs Just Too Narrow?

I read with great interest the series of articles in this week’s Chronicle about the death of the humanities. It would be a tragedy if the humanities were to die, and if we as a people no longer cared about literature, the arts, history, and philosophy. I don’t, however, see signs that such is the case.

Quite to the contrary, I see signs that more people than ever before—and not just the privileged elite—are exploring the humanities in new ways and with renewed intensity. Distance learning, Web-based instructional materials, neighborhood and workplace book clubs, YouTube videos, “there’s an app for that,” museums and libraries all provide opportunities for those with an interest in the arts, literature, religion, and philosophy to explore and learn. So I don’t think the humanities are dying.

Instead, I think the message to be gleaned from the series of articles posted this week is that traditional institutions of higher education may no longer be the center of the universe and central authority when it comes to engaging and educating people in the humanities. With the expansion of distance and other lifelong learning opportunities, those with interests in the humanities might just find that there is more information available to them, and in formats they prefer, when they look outside of the traditional classroom to learn.

But the series this week wasn’t so much about the death of the humanities as it was about the “overproduction” of doctoral students. I wonder, however, if the problem isn’t one of misproduction rather than overproduction. Perhaps the problem isn’t that there are too many graduate students in humanities doctoral programs, but instead that the education and training provided to those students is misguided and irrelevant given that few will end up in academic careers.

We all know that tenure-track faculty positions are going the way of buggy whips and … well … dinosaurs. Yet year after year we bring new graduate students into doctoral programs, force them to specialize in increasingly marginal and esoteric areas, require them to write dissertations that nobody will read, and then turn them loose with good wishes for getting that coveted full-time faculty position. You train them the way that you were trained because look how well you’ve done. Nobody in the world worked harder or turned out better than you did … well …  except for those who landed a position at an even higher-ranked university than yours.

Perhaps, instead of discouraging students from pursuing advanced degrees in the humanities, graduate departments should revamp their programs to ensure that students not only master advanced skills and concepts, but also understand the ways in which their talents can be applied to careers outside of the cloistered halls of academia. No, I don’t mean dumbing down the curriculum or vocationalizing graduate education, although one could argue that graduate education is already highly vocationalized in that it prepares students for one job and one job only—that of the tenured research professor.

It seems to make far more sense to help students design thesis projects that are relevant to the work they wish to pursue and the contributions they wish to make, as opposed to the stale and outdated requirement to publish an irrelevant thesis that nobody will ever read or cite. The typical thesis project, combined with the requirement that the student complete novel work, generally forces students into niche specialization that may not serve them well in the future. On the other hand, for those who wish to work outside of the academy, a broader understanding of a more varied set of topics may be more appropriate. There are lots of “products” other than the traditional book or thesis that could adequately evaluate a student’s intellectual capacity and academic merit, so perhaps graduation requirements need to provide a degree of flexibility in terms of the structure and form of the doctoral thesis.

Sure, we need some students to enter the academy, so we shouldn’t end traditional graduate education as we know it. But since most students won’t become faculty members, perhaps some programs could differentiate themselves by focusing on preparing students for humanities-related, nonacademic careers. Other institutions might consider providing different tracks for students based on where those students may end up in the future.

The professional science master’s (PSM) degree offers a model worthy of consideration. PSM programs provide students with a rich understanding of scientific theory and practice, while also preparing them to apply their knowledge and skills in the fields of law, manufacturing, product development, regulatory compliance, investment banking, intellectual property rights, technology transfer, and public policy, to name a few. This concept could be applied to the humanities, with very favorable results.

In my experience, individuals who are experts in the humanities make tremendously important contributions to NGO’s, law firms, small businesses, international development and public-health organizations, citizen-services organizations, government agencies, large technology companies, marketing firms and the entertainment industry. Would it be so horrible if students had the opportunity to explore—with the help and blessings of their faculty mentors—some of these nonacademic possibilities while they are completing their doctoral degrees? Is it possible that graduate work based on one of these nonacademic applications might be meritorious and of equal or superior quality to the traditional “find a new way to say the same thing” thesis?

My fellow blogger, Gina Barreca, in her April 6 entry, asks what she should tell her top graduate students—you know, the ones who already know how to write a dissertation, teach an excellent class, and wear the right clothes. Well, Gina, I would suggest that you tell those students how their research and writing skills can be useful outside of the classroom, that they need to prepare a résumé for a job outside of the Ivory Tower, that their expertise is important in solving real-world problems and improving the lives of others, and what an asset they will be to their field when they show how applicable rigorous training in the humanities is to careers in business, government, performance, public policy, and public service. You might want to introduce them to successful alumni who have enjoyed meaningful careers outside of the university. Or maybe you could just look at those über students and tell them that they are still smart and worthy, even if they don’t end up in a job like yours.

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