I see we are in another cycle of concern for the academic humanities, this time triggered by a long article in The New Yorker by Nathan Heller titled “The End of the English Major.”
Heller covers a lot of ground, and none of it will be novel (pardon the pun) to people who read a publication called Inside Higher Ed.
One of the benefits of having been writing in this space for such a long time is that I can go to my own archives over these evergreen issues and see what I’ve had to say. I see a piece from 2016 predicated on the decline of the number of humanities faculty in which I suggested that the humanities will not be killed as long as humans remain, but the academy may cease to become a good home for them.
I would call it prescient except noting the obvious doesn’t qualify as prescience.
We shouldn’t be surprised that the decline in humanities faculty has led to a decline in humanities majors. Turn your workforce into a bunch of precariously employed itinerants, while steadily eroding the number and quality of experiences students will have with the humanities in higher ed, and you’re not looking at a healthy ecosystem in which to bring students into the fold.
I lost count of the times I’d made at least a partial convert in my first-year writing class and had the student say they wanted to take another course with me sometime, and what else did I teach?
Uh … nothing? And also, I probably won’t be working here by the time you graduate anyway.
The way students experience the humanities prior to college—for example, in the Advance Placement program—isn’t a great advertisement for the pleasures and yes … practicality of a humanities major, either.
(More on that practicality part in a moment.)
Over time, I have become more resigned than angry. The thought that we could have mustered the forces necessary to arrest these changes is to wish for a world fundamentally different than the one we live in.
I mean, I often wish for that world, but I’m not naïve enough to think it could’ve been realized.
We now have to play the hand we’ve dealt ourselves.
Heller’s article suggests that students still want humanities-like experiences, but the perception of fields like English as a major is that they are unserious and impractical.
For sure, the full value of the humanities is not in the way they prepare us for the workplace, but I wonder if those of us in the humanities who are reflexively distasteful of reducing education to workplace preparation—and I am very much among them—should be making a more forceful case for the English major, yes, the English major, as an excellent springboard to career success in the 21st century.
Speaking as someone with not one (B.A.), not two (M.A.), but three (M.F.A) degrees in English, in the years when I’ve managed to work outside of higher education institutions, I’ve done just fine for myself—money-wise, that is.
(Working in higher ed institutions as a nontenureable instructor of various stripes was a bit of a drag on the old income. But thanks to doing things like writing books, editing the McSweeney’s Internet Tendency website and now spending so many years with you all here, even those years were OK in terms of income, and better than OK—most of the time—in terms of happiness and job satisfaction.)
It's not surprising that I’ve done well for myself. In survey after survey of employers, things like critical thinking skills, ability to communicate through writing, creative thinking and ability to integrate ideas/information across different contexts—all things I learned in pursuit of my English degrees—are rated as very important.
Back in 2013, governor of North Carolina Pat McCrory questioned the value of a liberal arts education, the initial angle of assault on the humanities taken by conservative ideologues, since surpassed by Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who wants to make teaching anything at odds with his particular vision of America essentially illegal.
In a blog post at the time, I defended my English education as the key to being able to thrive and rapidly advance inside a market research firm, rising from the typing pool to the position of analyst and project director within a couple of years, despite not having taken a math class since high school.
I later turned this kernel into a public talk titled “Why the World Needs More Humanities Degrees” in which I connect the dots between having to figure out how to write a lengthy explication of a Gerard Manley Hopkins sonnet, despite having no idea what a poetry explication that length was supposed to look like, and years later, developing a comprehensive quantitative survey of donors and prospective donors for an environmental nonprofit organization, another thing I had no idea how to do until I did it.
I routinely advanced past coworkers with degrees in marketing, sociology and even M.B.A. holders, because while they had learned stuff, I had genuinely learned how to think. I was better at it than they were, even though, let’s face it, I’m nothing special.
The underlying skills that allowed me to do these things were the same. I knew how to think rhetorically, to understand audience and occasion and purpose. I first encountered these lessons in third grade, when Mrs. Goldman made us write instructions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I failed to write that you should use a knife to spread the peanut butter on the bread and soon found myself dipping my hand into the jar of peanut butter, an indelible lesson in audience and purpose that I’ve recounted many times since.
I tried to market that talk to institutions for years: Please, let me come and share the good news on what a humanities degree can do for you!
I’ve delivered it exactly once.
There’s other stuff we know about why humanities majors do well in the workplace. A Gallup-Purdue survey some years back found strong correlations between undergraduate mentorship and future job happiness. The same survey found that humanities majors were much more likely to experience that kind of mentorship.
Unfortunately, hollowing out the faculty has likely degraded this aspect of the humanities experience. Again, see above about the students looking for another course with an instructor they’d identified as a possible mentor (me), and being told that such a thing is not possible.
As we confront a world where artificial intelligence has a greater and greater presence, I think some good old humanities majors who can problem-solve and have a deeper understanding of the world might come in handy.
Personally, I’ve never been busier in my life, and talking to the people who want to talk to me, it seems like they need help from a lot more people like me.
As busy as I may be, I’m still happy to come and give that talk about the awesome power of a humanities degree to your institution’s students.
Or maybe it’s the provosts and presidents who need it.
Either way, I’m easy to find.