Defending the Humanities: Practical Value

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In a previous essay, I noted the concern that the humanities are in decline in the academy. In this essay I will argue in defense of the practical value of the humanities.

Honesty compels me to admit that some of the problems faced by the humanities are self-inflicted. First, humanities faculty have generally not done a very good job “selling” the practical value of the humanities to students, parents, politicians, and society as a whole. Part of this might be the result of the notion that humanities faculty should not stoop to selling their beloved disciplines like a pimp sells his hookers. My view is that the practical value of the humanities can be shown without descending to the level of what would amount to intellectual prostitution.

Second, some humanities faculty devote considerable time to saying and writing ridiculous things about absurd matters as well as creating pointless academic problems whose solutions would achieve nothing of significance. These absurdities infest the professional journals and abound at the professional conferences—thus perhaps making it a mercy that the general public studiously ignores these venues. Those who become masters of both self-promotion and empty absurdities are often the most lauded of faculty—enjoying excellent compensation, modest workloads, and considerable attention. This enables critics of the humanities a ready stock of easy targets when they wish to argue for the uselessness of the humanities. Having endured finely nuanced deconstructions of cybernetic genders in fictional spaces, I have considerable sympathy for their disdain. However, I will endeavor to show that this fluffy absurdity is not all there is to the humanities and that there is actual practical value to the disciplines of the humanities.

Before entering into my defense of the humanities, I must first engage in a brief discussion of practical value. After all, to show that the humanities have practical value requires having a concept of practical value. There is also the matter of the often overlooked concern about why a specific view of practical value should be accepted as the proper measure of value.

Interestingly enough, defining practical value and arguing why a specific view of practical value should be accepted are both subjects that fall solidly within the humanities, specifically my discipline of philosophy. While some will obviously be tempted to go with their own view of practical value because it is “obvious”, this would be to engage in the fallacy of begging the question—that is, assuming as true what actually needs to be proven. Thus, one obvious practical value of the humanities is that it is needed to sort out the very nature of practical value and to determine which view of practical value that should be accepted.

For the sake of the discussion and brevity, I will stick with a fairly simple view of practical value that is popular in certain circles. The basic idea is that the practical value of a major is its economic value. Put a bit crudely, this can be considered in terms of how effectively job fillers are created for the jobs created by the job creators. The general measures of value would thus involve employment rates and salaries.

One common stereotype is that those majoring in the humanities are doomed to unemployment or, at best, poor salaries. Anecdotes (and jokes) do abound about people who got a degree in a humanities discipline and ended up doomed. However, as any philosophy major should know, an appeal to anecdotal evidence is a fallacy. What is needed is not anecdotes but statistical data.  Conveniently enough, Georgetown University released a detailed report on this matter.

Based on the usual stereotypes and common anecdotes, one would expect theatre majors, literature majors and philosophy majors to have very high unemployment rates as recent college graduates. Interestingly, theatre majors have an unemployment rate of 6.4%, literature majors are at 9.8% and philosophy majors are at 9.5% (unemployment rates are significantly lower for experience degree holders). Interestingly, the information systems (14.7%) and architecture (12.8%) have the highest unemployment rates. Computer science (8.7%) and accounting (8.8%) are fairly close to the humanities. Those doing best are elementary education majors and (5%) and nursing majors (4.8%).

Taking employment as being a measure of practical value, these statistics show that humanities degrees have practical value. After all, the employment rates for those with humanities degrees are competitive with non-humanities degrees.

In terms of compensation, the humanities fields generally offer less salary than some other fields. However, the average income of a college graduate in the humanities considerably exceeds that of the average income of a high school graduate. Thus, by this measure of practical value the humanities do have practical value. Thus, when people ask me what someone can do with a humanities degree, my cynical (but truthful) answer is “get a job and get a paycheck.” Some people get some very good jobs and some even become famous.

In addition to the concern about the practical value of a humanities there is also concern about the value of humanities classes—especially those that students are “forced” to take. While schools do vary, it is common for universities to have a humanities requirement and various non-humanities majors often require classes in the humanities. For example, the Florida public university system requires students to take two classes in the humanities. As another example, many of the students in my Critical Inquiry, Ethics, Aesthetics and Introduction to Philosophy classes have to take these classes for their non-humanities major.

It could be argued that “forcing” students to take humanities classes is a waste of student time and money (especially given that tuition is at an all-time high and graduation rates are still depressingly low) because such classes have no practical value to the students. That is, these classes do not contribute provide practical skills that would have a practical payoff. As with the humanities majors, it will be assumed that practical value in this case is a matter of economics.

Some humanities classes do have clear and general practical value. Obvious examples include the basic English classes (writing skills are uniformly useful), critical thinking classes (which is all the rage today), and logic.

Other humanities classes have practical value that does depend on the context. For example, those intending to be involved in overseas business can benefit from humanities classes covering these nations. This relative value is not unique to the humanities. For example, a class in biochemistry will not be particularly useful to someone who plans to manage a company that develops game apps for iPads, but it would be unreasonable to dismiss the class as useless simply because it is useless to some people.

Since the practical value of a class can be relative it is well worth considering whether or not a specific class has practical value for a specific major or student. As such, I would not claim that all humanities classes have practical value to all majors and all students. I would also not claim that all science or math classes have practical value to all majors and all students. However, the mere fact that a specific class does not have practical value to some students or some majors does not entail that it has no practical value.

As a final point, there is some concern that people should be reluctant to make an appeal to the practical when defending the value of the humanities. After all, this would seem to concede too much to those who regard themselves as opponents to the humanities. Rather, it could be contended, the defenders of the humanities should avail themselves of more traditional appeals to the inherent value of the humanities.

There is some merit to this concern and appealing to the practical does run the risk of handing a considerable advantage to those who wish to diminish or dispose of the humanities. However, I would contend that the humanities can be defended on practical grounds without abandoning the more traditional arguments in its favor. In the next essay in this series I will endeavor to argue for the value of the humanities on non-practical (that is, non-economic) grounds.


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  1. Besides the economic value, isn’t educating informed citizens another practical value of the humanities?

    Informed citizens need critical reasoning skills to avoid being misguided by demagogues and by the less serious media as well as some knowledge of history to avoid repeating the errors and horrors of the past.

    Living in a society with informed citizens who make rational choices about public issues seems of immense practical value.

  2. “the notion that humanities faculty should not stoop to selling their beloved disciplines like a pimp sells his hookers.”

    Mike, you make it sound like the faculty is being asked to walk the streets in the cold winter night in skimpy clothes and glass heels, hollerin’ cars down; “Hey honey, you want a little humanities”.

    “My view is that the practical value of the humanities can be shown without descending to the level of what would amount to intellectual prostitution.”

    Let me tell you something about the world. When a girl does it for free, it’s called making love, when she doesn’t, it’s called making money. Mike, you get a paycheque, don’t you. What is it they pay you that money for…..

  3. “For example, a class in biochemistry will not be particularly useful to someone who plans to manage a company that develops game apps for iPads, but it would be unreasonable to dismiss the class as useless simply because it is useless to some people.”

    Mike, here you’re making two critical mistakes. One, you’re thinking linearly, instead of laterally.

    Thinking linearly, you would imagine that if someone wanted to be a good computer scientist, or software developer, they should focus on maths, science, and engineering. You would imagine taking a night course in arts and crafts would not only be a waste of time and money, but a distraction. But you would be wrong. Steve Jobs was a college drop out – he did become a hardware engineer for Atari. One time shortly after dropping out of college he saw a notice for an arts and crafts night course, I believe on printing. And this is where he learned about kerning; the aesthetically pleasing but uneven positioning of characters in printed text.

    It’s not something you would have found on the syllabus of an engineering course in the 70s, or even now. When it came to designing one of the early Apple machines that did have the graphics capability – Jobs’ memory of the night course came back to him and he incorporated kerning into the word processing of the system. This gave Jobs’ desktop machines the publishing production ability of bespoke systems used by the publishing and printing industry that cost tens of millions. And Apple machines are still considered the sine qua non for publishing.

    Yes, an engineer can know the science and the how of a machine…but if they’re over focussed on the mechanics, they will not know the why.

    One slightly mystical mathematical definition of a straight line, is that it is the circumference of a circle with an infinite radius. If you think linearly, you are travelling in a straight line – and if you keep travelling for 2pi(infinity), you will arrive back where you started. Worse than a dead end, in that you just keep going around in circles, but for all the energy you expend, you are going nowhere.

  4. “Interestingly, theatre majors have an unemployment rate of 6.4%, literature majors are at 9.8% and philosophy majors are at 9.5% (unemployment rates are significantly lower for experience degree holders). Interestingly, the information systems (14.7%) and architecture (12.8%) have the highest unemployment rates.”

    Many parents would dread their children wanting to study theatre. Why not study something sensible like information systems, or architecture instead.

    There is as at least one American college (can’t remember the name) where they do force their engineering students to study drama – even go as far as making them put on a play.

    Whereas the value of drama skills are less tangible and quantifiable than engineering skills, the employment statistics do bear an indication that they have a concrete value.

    Drama skills have a very practical application. A job interview is actually an audition, very much in the dramatic sense. Young engineers tend not to be frivolous, but we live in a world of ceaseless and unending frivolity. The HR manager who interviews is more concerned with the candidate’s “character” than their engineering capabilities. So when the drama student prepares for an interview, they prepare a character.

    Once you’re hired, there’s another snag engineers especially find themselves running into. What can get them fired; a poor work performance. The naïve engineer fumbles here, their work performance relates to their real world productivity. Unfortunately, it does not. It’s another dramatic production. In Sheryl Sandberg’s Facebook, the bureaucratic hierarchy, the people who will ultimately get you fired, or promoted, gauge work performance on “personality”
    ….again “character”. They do not call jobs “roles” for nothing. And who better to perform a role than an actor.

  5. JMRC,
    Yes, of course. Tell it like it is!

    To succeed in any industry, knowledge is not the most precious commodity. Sincerity is. If the entry level job seeker is able to fake-believe sincerity, wealth and honor and political power are waiting.

    Gorgias rules. Sophistry forever. We might not like the idea but let us give (15 hours) credit to what works.

  6. Mike LaBossiere,

    I like the argument presented here although practicality should be more than employment. Also, statistics can overlook particular cases. I am not quite sure if a person earned his employment through a relative or via work history or on the merits of his education–and education specific to his degree. But those are all hypothetical not worth parsing. But let’s face it: Universities are now broken down into business, medicine, and humanities (rather broad, don ‘t you think). Do you think the humanities can improve if they tie their courses to the other disciplines? Rhetoric and essays are important tools to advance Business majors especially. I’m a college instructor at San Jose City College and half of my students are always worried about expanding his vocabulary and speaking in front of audience.

    Thank you for an insightful article.I’m looking forward to future works.


    John Tang at

  7. Even if shown that the Humanities has practical value, which it does, that does not mean that continued changes are not meant to occur as it struggles to find an identity among colleges at academic institutions.

    If people continue to find them important, which they will, then the humanities will be supported. Finding the practical value for any one subject, science or humanities, is always difficult to trace. Nevertheless, the cohesiveness of the humanities and sciences in everyone’s life is simply not ignorable. We do things everyday which are enhanced (whether we are aware of it or not) by the practical values offered by the humanities.

  8. I don’t claim that there is no possible use to classes “out of field” (such as in the biochem for a game developer). My main point is that just because a class might not be directly applicable to some specific goal/career does not entail that the class is useless across the board.

    Sure, a person could get some use out of a class that seems to have no clear connection to his major or her career goals. Nothing I say denies that.

  9. JMRC,

    I was being a bit sarcastic, but I did like my analogy. But it does express the concern of some folks-that humanities classes are pitched simply as things to be used for some practical end rather than having any value of their own.

  10. Raymond Reddington

    Honesty doesn’t “compel.” Desire compels. Honesty is a quality one strives for, or avoids.

  11. One aspect of this thread rehearses arguments recently made for the study of Latin. The question is whether the generic or ‘transferrable’ features of subject-specific knowledge, skills, insights, questions, methods and approaches of Latin (or any other Humanity discipline, of course) are not, or even cannot be, acquired and enhanced when one studies (‘majors in’ on your side of the pond) more overtly ‘practical’ subject areas? For someone with an almost exclusively numerate-science and biomedical education (in terms of what’s on the certificates!), I have long had my doubts about the necessity of the humanities in structured higher education. Desirable for sure, but necessary (to achieve the generalised desiderata which the Humanities are usually claimed to favour)? I’m really not so sure.

    An aspect seldom raised in this kind of discussion implies, or assumes, that the ‘practical’ subjects are somehow lacking in those generic intellectual and cultural features self-ascribed to the Humanities. But it’s rare we hear the reverse case made. I don’t merely mean that those in the humanities know little science and technology – that’s a given. I mean that the case is seldom put in terms of the world-view, the generic skill-plus-knowledge set that the latter confers and yet can seem closed to the former. In short, I know many professionals in science, medicine and engineering who have an intellectual and skill repertoire that was formerly described as ‘polymath’. But it’s my impression that reciprocal examples are significant by their rarity. I rather expect to be contradicted!

  12. Dr. Caffeine:

    The polymaths in the humanities generally are the kind of people who speak several foreign languages, write essays and poetry with skill and play one or more musical instruments well.

    I’ve met a number of them.

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