Tag Archives: Humanities

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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The Decline of Humanities

Head of Platon, roman copy. The original was e...

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One of the current narratives is that the humanities are in danger at American universities. Some schools are cutting funding for the humanities while others are actually eliminating majors and departments. At my own university, the college of arts and sciences was split apart with the humanities and soft sciences in one new college and the now exalted STEM programs in another. Not surprisingly, I was called upon (at a moment’s notice) to defend the continued existence of the philosophy and religion unit I head up. Fortunately, I could point to the fact that our classes regularly overload with students and the fact that our majors have been very successful.

While this narrative is certainly worrisome to faculty in the humanities, this is actually not a new narrative. For example, while about 7% of majors are in the humanities, this has been the case since the 1980s. As another example, humanities programs have been subject to cuts for decades. That said, there is clearly a strong current trend towards supporting STEM and cutting the humanities.

As might be suspected, the push to build up the STEM programs has contributed to the decline of funding for humanities programs. Universities and colleges have to allocate their funds and if more funds are allocated to STEM, this leaves less for other programs. There is also the fact that there is much more outside funding (such as from the federal government) for STEM programs. As such, STEM programs can find themselves getting a “double shot” of increased funding from the university and support from outside while humanities programs face reduced support from within the institutions and little or nothing from outside.

Those who argue for STEM over the humanities would make the case that STEM programs should receive more funding. If more students enroll in STEM than in the humanities, then it would clearly be fair that these programs receive more funding. If humanities programs want more funding, then they would need to take steps to improve their numbers.

There is also the argument based on the claim that funding STEM provides a greater return for the money in terms of job creation, educating job fillers and generating research that can be monetized. That is, STEM provides a bigger financial and practical payoff than the humanities. This would, clearly, serve to justify greater funding for STEM. Assuming, of course, that funding should be determined primarily in terms of financial and practical values defined in this manner. As such, if humanities programs are going to earn increased funding, they would need to show that they can generate value of a sort that would warrant their increased funding. This could be done by showing that the humanities have such practical and financial value or, alternatively, arguing that the humanities generate value of a different sort that is still worthy of funding.

Those in the humanities not only need to convince those who redistribute the money, they also need to convince students that the humanities are valuable. This need not require convincing students to major in the humanities—getting students to accept the value of the humanities to the degree that they will willingly enroll in such classes and support the programs that offer them.

It has long been a challenge to get students to accept the value of the humanities. When I was an undergraduate almost three decades ago most students looked down on the humanities and this has not changed. Now that I am a professor, honestly compels me to admit that most students sign up for my classes because they have to knock out some sort of requirement. I do manage to win some of these students over by showing them the value of philosophy, but many remain indifferent at best.

While it is a tradition to claim that things are worse now than they were when I was a youngster, this is actually the case. Recently, there has been a conceptual shift in regards to education: now the majority of students regard the main function of college as job preparation or as vocational training. That is, students predominantly see college as a machine that will make them into job fillers for the job creators.

Because of the nature of our economic system, most students do have to worry about competing in a very difficult job market and surviving in a system that is most unkind. As such, it is not unwise of students to take this very practical approach to education.

While it is something of a stereotype, parents do often worry that their children will major in the humanities and it is not uncommon for students to pressure their kids to major in something “useful.” When I was a student, people I knew said just that. Now that I am a professor, my students sometimes tell me that their parents are against them taking philosophy classes. While some are worried that their children will be corrupted, the main concerns are the same as that expressed by students: the worry that majoring in the humanities is a dead end and that the humanities requirements are delaying graduation and wasting their money.

Those of us in the humanities have two main options here. One is to make the case that the humanities actually do provide the skills needed to make it in the world of the job creators. While some regard philosophy as useless, an excellent case can be made that classes in philosophy can be very helpful in getting ready for employment. To use the most obvious example, philosophy is the best choice for those who are considering a career in law. This approach runs the risk of devaluing the humanities and just making them yet another form of job training.

The second is the usual argument from the humanities, which is based on the idea there is more to life than being a job filler for the job creators. The usual line of argument is that the humanities teaches students to address matters of value, to appreciate the arts, and to both think and question. This, as might be imagined, sounds good in principle but can be a very hard sell.

Unfortunately, humanities faculty often fail to convince students, parents and those who control the money that the humanities are valuable. Sometimes the failure is on the part of the audience, but often it is on the part of the faculty. As such, those of us in the humanities need to up our game or watch the shadow over the humanities grow.


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