Last week, I came across this NYTimes piece and posted some feelings about it on social media. It seems to have weirdly struck a nerve, so I'm sharing my perspective with you all, too, in a bloggier-than-usual newsletter.
My main point was this: I'm tired of these pieces that wring their hands over the value of the humanities. It's an old argument, and not a particularly interesting one. Humanities degrees get jobs; the data shows it. (See this on state-by-state employment trends, and this on the remarkably high levels of job satisfaction that humanities majors tend to have.) It's disinvestment that erodes the humanities & leads to program closures. Ignoring that context is, at this point, lazy thinking.
What we're seeing now are the results of a systematic and structural push that has been slowly unraveling the humanities ecosystem for decades. Rather than fitting our work into that flawed premise, I think we need to respond differently, and take up more space, not less.
Every time we whittle away a piece of the humanities ecosystem, it becomes that much harder to regain our footing. Students notice which parts of the university landscape are prioritized; it's visible in buildings, in classroom spaces, in faculty offices. They hear messages from parents or from the media that nudge them in other directions. And then university leadership seems surprised when enrollment decreases.
This is connected with questions of public engagement and innovative research. Universities need to formally value different kinds of scholarship—not just monographs and journal articles—and bake these values into tenure and promotion. The community-engaged work that helps solidify the importance of humanistic inquiry is a key component of reaffirming the value of humanities higher education as a public good, but so often it's still something scholars have to do on top of other work that's more readily legible in an academic context.
Enough already. These program closures—and the rhetoric that brings them about—foreclose opportunities and push students into vocationally-oriented education, even if that's not the path they want. Instead, we need institutions and individuals to need to invest in teaching and in students, share research widely, and connect with communities. Students want and need a humanities education, and—shocker—employers value it, too.
I'm probably preaching to the choir here, but I feel strongly that showcasing the powerful work that's being done, publicly advocating for recognition of the crucial role that humanistic inquiry plays in our world today, and ultimately pushing to reinvest public funds in public higher ed—that's how we push back. Humanities education matters, now more than ever.
Whew. End rant. Thanks for listening, friends.