Talking about the Humanities: Value v. Meaning

Value v. Meaning

December 8, 2013

As a department chair, I think a lot about how to assuage the concerns of students and administrators around the value of what we do in English, and the humanities more broadly.  And as someone who tries to keep with developments in higher ed -- especially the ways in which the liberal arts and the humanities are perpetually “in crisis” -- I do not take lightly the need for such assuaging. But lately I’ve been wondering if what students think they need -- the skills that will enable them to find gainful employment -- makes it hard to see other things they might need too, things an English major can provide:  a place to be human, to find meaning.


When students are worried about the job market, when they perceive an urgent need for job skills and training, how do I argue for the value of the study of literature and the humanities more broadly?  Well, I do what any judicious participant in the neoliberal university does:  I tell them that the study of literature will make them entrepreneurial.  It will make them attractive to employers because they will be adaptable and flexible.  They will have good critical thinking skills and be better writers than most of the people competing for those same positions.  They will be able to manipulate and manage a wide range of information.  They will become comfortable with ambiguity.  They will learn empathy, which will help them deal with people from a wide range of backgrounds.  They will become creative problem-solvers, which is so crucial in the 21st century knowledge economy.


Basically, I tell them that students with an English background will be “in demand,” “dynamic workers,” “adaptable.”  They will have greater value in the marketplace, and they will be able to shift with changing economic climates.  They will be able to “monetize” the “soft skills” provided by their liberal arts degree.  


For administrators, I have provided data and assessment-based evidence that students who spend time studying literature show increased gains in critical thinking and effective communication skills.  I have spoken passionately of the ways that engagements with narrative generate in our students the kind of reasoning that renders them into empathic thinkers and reflective citizens.  I have worked to convince the people who decide whether or not to cut programs like ours that we are necessary.  (I talk about some of this here, too.)  In the 21st century academy literature cannot be for the elites; there is no room for luxury.  The close engagement with word and mind one finds in the study of literary texts, of the humanities, and the cultivation of the individual student’s abilities, is our best answer to the MOOC.  


I have to be able to make an argument for the value of the humanities:  what is a degree in the liberal arts worth?


If I can provide data that show literature adds value to the teaching of effective communication and critical thinking, which is something employers want, and that shows that the humanities facilitate reasoning and judgment and the habits of thought of the empathic and ethical person, which is what our civic society and our democracy want, then that’s what I’m going to do.


But: I need to use the tools of the neoliberal university to argue for the value of literature, when studying literature is actually the thing that gives you the tools to critique the neoliberal university.  As the 21st century academy becomes increasingly inhospitable to the study of literature, the study of literature becomes more and more necessary for providing the tools to call its very premises into question.  When we look to learn how much things are worth, are we putting a price tag on our humanity and selling it cheap?  What is the cost of monetizing our values?  What do we lose by rejecting all forms of contingency except the ebb and flow of the market and the false choices it generates?  Are we asking about the right kind of worth?


Here’s a bit of news:  our English majors get jobs.  Good jobs.  Jobs with titles and benefits and employee appreciation days and wellness programs.  They don’t come back and say, boy, I wish I weren’t living in a dumpster, thanks for nothing.  They have apartments and well-functioning grown-up lives.  What they come back and say is this:  Boy, I wish I were still in college.  I don’t have anyone to talk about books with.  I just re-read Wuthering Heights and I noticed all kinds of new things and I don’t have anyone to talk to.  They don’t want to be back in college because they can’t handle being adults.  They’ve figured that out just fine.  They want to be back in college because that is where they felt human.


I’m not suggesting we’re going about the necessity argument wrong.  I’m saying that there’s more than one kind of necessity, that we put a lot of emphasis on literature being a necessity -- and perhaps we’re making claims for the wrong kind of necessity too often.  In the neoliberal university, as Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades have pointed out, students are not students:  they are products.  It’s not just that the English major offers something you can’t get anywhere else in late-capitalist, deliverable-driven America; it’s that the English major offers something you can’t even get on today’s college campuses because they look like the rest of America.  


We come up with every way conceivable to justify the study of English and the humanities, and none of it accounts for why people are drawn to the power of stories, the beauty of language, the mystery of the other.  For here is where the real meaning lies:  empathy, possible worlds, civilization.  It is here where the intellectual value lies, beyond the instrumentalist (though necessary) work of maintaining a department and advocating for resources, beyond the false bromides of innovation and productivity.  Make the argument for necessity and use it to your advantage -- so that you can keep your classroom and turn it into a space for the slow and messy sharing of ideas, a playground for debate and intellectual experimentation, a crucible for the counterfactual, a utopia.  



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