I spent Thanksgiving weekend mostly off the internet and in the company of people and books I love, catching up with both. I was rereading a Dickens novel and spending time with family and friends, luxuriating in the long weekend that made both possible. As my daughter was packing up to return to college for the end of the semester, she asked if I'd be writing about her today. "Maybe," I said. But rather than write directly about her I want to write about three things that I’ve been thinking about both over the weekend and this morning.
First is the proposal (still only a plan, not yet adopted) in Florida "to charge more for majors without an immediate job payoff." This strikes me as entirely counter-intuitive. If I were in charge of the world, I'd charge less for majors without an immediate job payoff, on the theory that those students were more likely to graduate in debt and to need a little boost. But of course I'm not in charge of the world. I'll come back to this plan in a minute.
Second is indeed my daughter, who is graduating in May with a major "without an immediate job payoff" (anthropology, with a women's studies minor). (Note that anthropology has already come in for particular scorn from the governor of Florida.) She is thoughtful and self-assured, and while she took a practice GRE while she was here, she has no immediate post-graduate plans.
Third is a friend who spent a morning with us this weekend. We met on the first day of ninth grade — in Greek class, no less! — and we went through both high school and college together and have, remarkably, remained friends over the years. She is my daughter's godmother, and one of the most loving and generous women I know. She, too, graduated as an anthropology major — thus, "without an immediate job payoff" (I'm going to get a lot of mileage out of that phrase, can you tell?)—in the early eighties, worked high end retail for a very brief while, then found her way into a fulfilling career in public relations that ended last year when her firm—in which she had become a partner—got swallowed up and she lost her job. After a thirty year career, she is looking for work—and reinventing herself.
Now, I suppose story number three could be a cautionary tale that supports the Florida plan. If only she'd chosen better, she might still be employed! But I see it differently. Many of those who graduated with immediate job payoffs in the early eighties, after all, lost their jobs long before last year. Perhaps they went to work for Kodak or Bethlehem Steel, both Fortune 500 companies when I graduated from college, both now defunct. No one in my graduating class went to work for Apple or Google, to name only two—and the industries that will be employing my son, now fifteen, probably don't exist yet. Instead, my friend had thirty years of interesting, fulfilling—but sometimes, also, crazy-making—employment, and now she has the opportunity and the ability to reinvent herself. She draws on her anthropology major, she tells me, all the time, as she considers the way we are shaped by and shaping of our culture, as she thinks about the choices she makes and the choices that are made for her. She is going through a tough time, it's true—but she has the resources to face it. And our conversation, far from being depressing, was filled with laughter as we joked, sometimes wryly, about the possible futures we were all inventing for ourselves and that were being invented for us.
Of course the Florida plan envisions a broad-ranging set of majors with"immediate job payoffs”—but even so, they can't predict the future. As my daughter, my husband, my friend, and I sat around Saturday morning (my son, perhaps wisely, slept in ), we tried to envision a future, and we kept falling back on what we're seeing in film and on TV, what we've read and what we've heard. We are not scientists, of course, and if there had been one in the mix our imaginings might have been better grounded in empirical reality, but we are well-educated thoughtful humans, and we can read. My friend lives in New York, and part of her planned reinvention has to do with her recent experiences in Superstorm Sandy—the experience of which made clear to her, and to many others, the unsustainability of the life she and her family are living. So how, she asks, can they reinvent their lives more sustainably? And where? She told us of the research she and her husband were doing, the questions they were asking, and we added our own to the mix. We came to no conclusions, but it struck me as we talked that my daughter and my friend are in similar positions—both about to invent a new future for themselves—and are similarly prepared to do so with the humanities training they have.
We humanists find ourselves on the defensive these days, I admit. But to talk to my friend was to realize that her humanities degree has been an integral part of her professional and personal identity for the last thirty years. We need folks with STEM degrees, of course — in the last superstorm, we needed the engineers and environmental scientists and meteorologists and all sorts of other STEM professionals, and we'll continue to need them in the next one. And not only in the superstorm but to invent new drug therapies, to re-engineer our cities, and to help make our lives more sustainable in any number of ways. But we need the humanists as well, to help us think about the quality of our lives, to help us celebrate what we have that is good, and to think, sometimes even fantasize, about how to improve what isn't. And, as my friend said, it's also just plain fun to give serious thought to complex questions---why not spend some time doing that when you can? It's not really a luxury, after all: as Mr. Sleary in Dickens's Hard Times (the novel I spent the weekend re-reading) reminds us, the people "must be amused," even in the hardest of times. The humanities give us that, and so much more; as Dickens recognized over a century and a half ago, we cut them at our peril.