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The cultural implications of the myth that English majors end up working permanently at Starbucks (essay)

The old joke about studying English went, “Would you like fries with that major?” I haven’t heard that joke in years. Barista has replaced fast food worker as the career of choice for warning against the perils of majoring in English.

What are we to make of this new old joke about the English major? Why did barista replace fast food worker? The fact is that English majors are not particularly likely to end up as baristas or as workers in the food service industry in general. Plenty of data is available to disprove this idea, so what does its persistence mean? The English major barista is a myth in the sense of being untrue. It is also a myth in the deeper sense of that word: a story that a culture tells itself to explain wishes or fears. In this case, fears.

The Data

First things first. Data show that English majors do not tend to end up as baristas. Over each year, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts a detailed survey of about 1 percent of the national population. Called the American Community Survey, this census includes questions about age, educational attainment, field of degree and employment. Respondents to the survey cannot actually choose “barista” when reporting occupation, but they can choose the category “counter attendant, cafeteria, food concession and coffeehouse.” However, the number of people in this category is small when further segmented by field of degree.

A more reliable analysis groups this category along with several related ones, including bartenders, waiters, dishwashers and the like. That larger grouping does not literally count English majors who work as baristas, but it gets at the spirit of the claim, with greater statistical validity. If the destiny of the English major is service behind the coffee bar, then bartending, waiting tables or washing dishes cannot be far behind.

However, none of those food service jobs are the English major’s particular fate. According to the Census Bureau, graduates with an English degree have about a 4.9 percent chance of working in one of these food service occupations for some time between the ages of 22 and 26. By comparison, the average among all degree holders in this age group is about 3.5 percent. So English majors are only about 1.4 percentage points more likely to work in food service than the average for all degree holders.

When we look at mature workers, the data bear out a broader observation: majors in the humanities and social sciences take a little more time to find their career footing, but then they catch up with and sometimes exceed in salary earnings the graduates with more professional degrees. For degree holders ages 27 to 66, the percentage of graduates in English working in food service professions for some time during this 40-year period is 0.72 percent, or about one in 139 majors. Among all majors ages 27 to 66, the average is 0.48 percent. English remains higher than average, but not by much. The 0.24 point difference translates to an additional one in 417 chance of ending up at working in food service at some point between the ages of 27 and 66.

So where, in fact, do English majors end up working? The top occupations for English-degree holders ages 27 to 66 are elementary and middle school teachers, postsecondary teachers, and lawyers, judges, magistrates and other judicial workers. Indeed, English majors, who go on to a range of careers, are less likely to work in food service than in many highly skilled positions, including as chief executives and legislators (1.4 percent), physicians and surgeons (1.2 percent), or accountants and auditors (1.2 percent). Parents worried that their children will study English and end up as baristas should know that their sons and daughters are statistically more likely to end up as CEOs, doctors or accountants than behind the counter of a Starbucks.

Level of education and age, rather than choice of major, most predict work in food service. Between the ages of 22 and 26, people who do not report a baccalaureate degree have a somewhat higher percentage of food service work than English-degree holders: 5.68 percent vs. 4.88 percent. For mature workers, ages 27 to 66, the corollary numbers are 1.45 percent and 0.72 percent. For full-time mature workers, the difference a baccalaureate degree makes is particularly striking. English-degree holders ages 27 to 66 work full time in food service at a rate of 0.53 percent, those without a baccalaureate degree at 1.92 percent. Starbucks has made help with college degree completion a perk for its workers. If all those baristas had B.A.s in English, or in any degree, there would be no need for this program.

Of course, the English major as barista is also shorthand for a general belief that a degree in English leads to underemployment -- that is, to jobs that really do not require a college degree. A recent study shows that around 12 percent of recent college graduates ages 22 to 27 with a degree in English work in low-skilled service jobs. That is the same percent as for baccalaureate holders in this age group who majored in psychology and earth science, and 3.4 percentage points higher than the average for degree holders in general, which is 8.6 percent. Those percentages may be higher than we would like, but there’s nothing distinctive about English majors in them.

Fortunately, too, these percentages are for recent graduates; the same study shows that college graduates tend to mature out of these jobs. As we have seen, the English majors who do work in food service generally do so when they are young and as a first job -- a start, not an end. The coffeehouse is not their career.

To establish themselves in their careers, English majors need to show a bit more resourcefulness than do majors in narrowly preprofessional degrees. And year after year, that is exactly what real English majors do. They do not possess this resourcefulness in spite of their English degree or as a mere coincidence with it. Creative and independent thinkers are attracted to the English degree, and that course of study helps to develop their creativity and their initiative -- the same personal qualities that serve them so well in the working world after graduation.

The Joke

So why the barista joke? It reflects negative attitudes about the English major itself rather than the realities of an English major’s likely employment. Since coffeehouses are places for reading, writing and talking, spending time in a coffeehouse is a lot like spending time in the study of English. Naturally enough, English majors like to hang out in them. STEM majors have their labs; English majors have their Starbucks. The joke about the English major barista implies, however, that unlike the science done in a lab, the study of English, whether pursued in coffeehouse or classroom, is without value. What better punishment for wasting this time than being sentenced to work at a coffeehouse rather than enjoying its pleasures, serving those who presumably chose some more valuable and lucrative major?

In this vengeful fantasy, moreover, the barista with an English B.A. contributes to the coffeehouse’s cultural sophistication, the human equivalent of its background jazz or pictures of Seattle circa 1971. The English major’s transformation into cultural wallpaper is part of the joke.

The English major makes an academic career out of studying literary culture or (still worse in the eyes of the major’s detractors) ordinary culture inflated into an academic subject. Having to work in a coffeehouse is punishment for that study, since students who are ambitious to become cultural elites instead find themselves in a lowly service industry, working in their local strip-mall Starbucks rather than sitting at a coffee bar in Florence. The particular name that Starbucks made famous for its workers -- “barista” -- along with all its pseudo-Italian terms, like “grande” for medium, is the foam on the Frappuccino. The joke implies that the job and its pretentious, pseudo-high culture name perfectly fit the empty pretensions of the major itself.

The Thin Bar

But this joke about frustrated aspiration is on us all. Consider the coffeehouse’s storied place in the history of European and Anglo-American modernity. Jürgen Habermas made famous the idea that the activities with which coffeehouses are still associated -- reading, writing, conversation -- made them nothing less than cradles of modern literature and democracy. The coffeehouse was a republic of letters, where literacy and the purchase of a cup of coffee were the only entry requirements to participation in literary and political worlds that had once been the exclusive province of courtly and hereditary elites. Coffeehouses were sometimes referred to in the 18th century as “penny universities.” (One still also had to be a man, although Habermas believes the ideals of the coffeehouse militated even against this restriction).

Your local coffee spot may seem a far cry from a cradle of western democracy or a “penny university.” Particularly with regard to Starbucks, the criticism of the coffeehouse today is that it’s a place of faux culture and shallow consumption, where the other side of high-priced coffee drinks is the exploitation of coffee farmers in the third world and of the company’s own workers behind the counter. From that point of view, Starbucks is just about making money. “Everything else,” as one Starbucks critic puts it, is “window dressing.” As part of that window dressing, the Starbucks barista both serves and reflects a world narrowed to maximized profit and empty consumption.

“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” the poet Wordsworth wrote. Still: Starbucks promises something more than getting and spending. However much our local Starbucks is a place to grab coffee as we rush to work, or an embarrassment of ersatz culture, the success of the Starbucks brand demonstrates a yearning for more fulfilling cultural and communal spaces of the sort described by Habermas. Starbucks doesn’t just sell coffee; it sells the coffeehouse ideal. It offers reading and music suggestions, has printed literary quotes on coffee cups, and has asked its baristas to start discussions about race in America. The criticism that greeted the last initiative is telling. Starbucks was seen as too corporate to serve as a place for genuine cultural or political exchange, however much it seems to promise it.

The fast-food joke consigned the English major to a low-paying and unfulfilling job. The barista joke consigns the English major to a low-paying and unfulfilling job that remains tantalizing close to a more fulfilling coffeehouse ideal. To the extent that we also want that ideal, we’re that close, too. We, too, are attracted to the coffeehouse image of a richer cultural and communal life, even if that image promises more than harried working lives and corporate marketing can deliver. A thin bar separates the cultural aspirations, and disappointments, of Starbucks workers and consumers.

A similarly thin bar separates worker and consumer in terms of a feared economic decline. There was a time when we might have celebrated the English major’s drive to explore self and world in college, or as part of a career trajectory that involved some time for similar self-development and exploration of opportunities, before rushing headlong into a career. There was a time when we laughed at hearing the just-graduated Dustin Hoffman advised in The Graduate to stake his future on plastics. And there was a time when we understood that English majors, like other majors in the liberal arts, end up with far more than a salary -- they develop the sense of ethics, history and culture, and the habits of open and reasoned deliberation, that the coffeehouse ideal represents and that are essential to functioning democracies, not to mention to lives well lived.

Today, however, many people laugh at someone who seems unwilling to turn a college education into job training for the industry du jour in order to secure the highest-paying job straight out of college. English majors achieve successful careers, as the data show. That we consign them, in the myth of the English major barista, to a permanent life in food service says less about them and more about us -- about how afraid we have become of defying the market imperative to maximize profit, the single force, apparently, by which we are now supposed to guide our lives.

This fear is reasonable -- stagnant wages, the erosion of unions, the growing use of contract and part-time labor to replace full-time jobs, the increasing gap between rich and poor, and insufficiently regulated financial markets all contribute to the insecurity of middle-class life. For college students in particular, the withdrawal of states from the public funding of higher education, combined with rising tuition, makes any decisions seem risky if they don’t, as the saying goes now, make college an effective return on investment. But the fear is more than that. It is as if any defiance of profit maximization must be met with punishment: the condemnation to a life serving coffee.

We will only really dispel the myth of the English major barista when we confront head-on the structural economic problems and the narrow market ideology that drive the fear behind it. Meanwhile, in their own refusal to succumb to this fear, English majors can be confident they'll do fine spending some time in coffeehouses -- whichever side of the bar they’re on.

Robert Matz is a professor of English and senior associate dean in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University.

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A new play's portrayal of the value of the liberal arts (essay)

A stint at a liberal arts college as the cure for economic hardship and social despair? As a way out of poverty and dead-end, low-wage employment?

That's hardly the conventional wisdom. Just ask around, and it’s easy to find someone who will tell you how useless it is to indulge yourself in the humanities or to become immersed in a broad selection of old-fashioned courses in the traditional arts and sciences, rather than going for marketable, albeit elusive, "skills." After all, as former Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio said in a Milwaukee debate last fall, welders make more money than philosophers. (Not true, as it turns out.)

Yet a detour back to the liberal arts is the subversive suggestion tucked away in Sweat, a stinging postindustrial stage drama of economic injustice by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, which has played to mostly rave reviews in Oregon and Washington, DC, and will open next fall in New York. At a critical moment in the action, the 21-year-old black factory worker Chris, looking for a way to improve his lot in life, tells his foil and white friend Jason, during a scene in the bar where they hang out, that he is thinking of enrolling at Albright College, a small, private, nonprofit liberal arts institution in Reading, the small city in southeastern Pennsylvania where the play is set. This is, to put it mildly, a counterintuitive turn in the plot.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned Nottage, a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, to write one of her searing social dramas about America’s “de-industrial revolution.” She located Sweat in Reading (pronounced “redding”) because it was ranked as the country’s poorest city in 2012.

That distinction came as a shock to me. Having grown up 80 miles to the north near Wilkes-Barre, a town that since the late 1950s has seemed to define the term “depressed,” I always thought of Reading as a bit on the spiffy side. They made pretzels and steel there (a lot more exotic than Wilkes-Barre’s coal mines and shoe factories) and boasted one of the country's first outlet malls. The Cleveland Indians at one point actually moved a minor league baseball franchise from Wilkes-Barre to Reading, which seemed to be quite a statement. Besides, Reading was much closer to sophisticated Philadelphia, and its eponymous little railroad had a glamorous presence on the Monopoly board.

Indeed, as Nottage noted to me in a recent telephone conversation, there was a time, not so very long ago, when Reading and other old-line communities like it “had such an abundance of industrial jobs available that a person could practically stand on a street corner and get hired.”

In those days, she added, “a really good, solid factory job was a way to move up the ladder and get into the middle class. You could have a paid vacation every year, health insurance and a pension.” After 25 or 30 years, a worker in Reading could hope to earn $40,000 a year, support a family and have a good life.

But the evolution of the American economy has ravaged such places. New realities have wiped out old appearances and reputations. By the time Nottage, who is African-American, arrived in Reading to do research, she found severe economic deprivation and a host of social ills -- crime and violence, drugs, and a bitter racism that sets desperate people against each other and especially against immigrants.

Sweat takes place in 2000, when a plant in Reading begins to lay off its workers, presumably because the jobs are being moved to Mexico and elsewhere outside the U.S., and in 2008, by which time the dire consequences of economic decline can be more fully appreciated. The talk is tough, fear of the inevitable pathological and a secure future hard to imagine. Sweat is, in a sense, a morality play, in which an explanation lurks for the rise of both of this year’s most surprising political figures, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, each with his distinct appeal to the dispossessed.

The protagonists, who include two mother-son pairs, one black and one white, have clearly placed far too much faith and confidence in their paternalistic employer. When things begin to unravel, they have no good place to turn. The bartender, their psychological and social adviser, permanently crippled as he is from his own accident at the plant, where he, too, used to work, could have told them this was coming -- but no one was listening.

So how is it that one of the victims, even before everything begins to fall apart at the plant, looks to a liberal arts college for salvation?

Chris, says Nottage, his creator, “is a kid who was always aspirational. But it was drilled into his head as he was growing up that he could make much more money in the factory” than he ever would with a college degree. Clearly, when he got out of high school, “a skilled-labor person was in greater demand than someone with a B.A.”

What Chris has realized by the time he makes his seemingly random remark about going to study at Albright, Nottage says, is “how taxing, physically and emotionally, his factory job was. It took him a long time to come around to a new idea” -- that he could go to college after all and perhaps train to be a teacher -- “and he met great resistance in his peer group and his family.”

For his part, Lex O. McMillan III, now completing his 11th year as president of Albright College, finds this anomalous twist in the plot of Sweat totally logical. As he notes, Albright, once a more elite institution, has become a very diverse place. Today a majority of its students are members of minority groups, and about half of the student body is eligible for federal Pell Grants that go to the economically disadvantaged. Surprisingly enough, the average family income of students at Albright and other similarly situated private colleges in the region is lower than of those at Penn State, the flagship state institution in Pennsylvania and one of the largest public universities in the United States.

But as the action unfolds in Sweat, Chris never makes it to Albright. His job disappears before he can come up with a plan, and in a cruel twist, his own mother, cynically drawn from the factory floor into management with a mandate to help downsize the workforce, seems to be partially responsible.

Nottage defends her somewhat surprising choice of Albright, rather than the more predictable option of a community college, as the place her fictional hero thinks of attending. “In Chris’s community,” she says, “it would not necessarily be identified as a ‘liberal arts college,’ but it might be seen as a place where someone with his background and experience could aspire to succeed.” She was particularly drawn to Albright’s website, which, among other things, features a college-completion program geared for adults returning to school.

Then there is the fact that she herself is the product of a liberal arts curriculum at Brown University, “which allowed me to have as broad an education as I could imagine.” Originally pegged as a math and science scholar, Nottage entered Brown from New York as a pre-med student, but found that “no part of me had any interest in being a doctor” -- so she escaped to the humanities.

McMillan has not yet seen Sweat performed, but he and his colleagues have greatly enjoyed the unexpected attention it has focused on Albright.

Has the case been made widely and convincingly enough that a traditional college education has a role to play in solving America’s plight? “The B.A. is a path to economic advancement,” McMillan says, mounting his newly polished soapbox. “It is the most practical education you can get, and it will be useful all your life.”

Nottage agrees. “Some students,” she acknowledges, “cannot be served fully by a liberal arts institution.” But a liberal education, she believes, “makes a whole vocabulary available to another group of people.”

Sanford J. Ungar, president emeritus of Goucher College, is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Georgetown University and a Lumina Foundation Fellow. He teaches Free Speech at Harvard University and Georgetown.

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On campus, voting behavior varies widely across college majors, regions

On college campuses, voter turnout is low. But voting behavior varies widely across disciplines and regions, a new study finds.

Ken Burns uses Jefferson Lecture to defend the humanities and the role of narrative

Ken Burns, in the Jefferson Lecture, champions fields that are under attack -- and speaks of the value of narratives.

The values of liberal arts and enlightenment are under attack (essay)

“There is a tone of ugliness creeping across the world, as democracies retreat, as tribalism mounts, as suspiciousness and authoritarianism take center stage.” -- David Brooks, The New York Times

Excuse me for interrupting the third year of superheated committee meetings on a minor change in requirements, but has anyone noticed we are at war? Not with terrorists, not with this or that nation, but with something larger and deeper and still more consequential. And has anyone further noticed that we are losing?

The greatest advantage in battle occurs when the target is unaware of being under attack.

The oblivious “we” here are liberal arts educators, but beyond us, all advocates of reason. And the attacking forces consist in the fundamentalist dogmas that have arisen to an alarming degree over the last several years in the world and as populist dogma in the United States.

A rejection of science, reason, understanding and even facticity itself threatens not merely the university but the crumbling of civil liberties into the primitive life that Hobbes described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

As a leading example, if extremist Muslims now selectively and reductively read the Koran to justify massacres, sexism, intolerance and slavery, our own extremist Christians now selectively and reductively scan the Hebrew and Christian Bibles in just the same way to promulgate just the same rationalizations of evil. Holy books present a full spectrum of attitudes, and international and national conflict today is fueled by choosing the most illiberal passages as the sole word of Allah/God. Millions of people now follow tyrants, justified, they believe, by their “anger” -- the new euphemism for irrational hatred.

What’s threatened by the new savagery is not just the college campus but also the Enlightenment in its most capacious sense: the values of skepticism, empiricism, scientific and philosophic rigor, and the tolerance that affords individual liberties. Even objections to Enlightenment values -- that they ignore the irrational or mask self-interest -- can be considered only in a setting established by those values. Such values -- the ones that our national founders signed onto in the Declaration of Independence and that undergird higher education as a guarantor of the republic and of human dignity -- are under a special intensity of attack while we academics seem preoccupied with the little stuff.

The biggest and worst surprise of my life has been this worldwide regression to bigoted ignorance and the gullibility or desperation that has enabled that ignorance such noxious success. Perhaps it was my own gullibility that had led me to assume the forward march of humanity toward a sunny spirit guided by reason. But all over the world they are turning out the lights.

Is time running backward into the darkness? The various nations in which Islam predominates spent the 19th century secularizing so rapidly that each decade “telescoped” a European century, in historian Juan Cole’s phrase. Christopher de Bellaigue has noted that in The Guardian and said, “In the middle of the century, the Ottoman sultan declared equality between Muslim and non-Muslim subjects, the slave trade was outlawed and the harem fell gradually into desuetude …. Culture, too, was transformed, with a surge in nonreligious education, and the reform of the Arabic, Turkish and Persian languages -- the better to present modern poetry, novels and newspaper articles before the potent new audience of ‘public opinion.’” With all that came representative government in the most populous nations of Egypt, Iran and Turkey. It isn’t that there has been no enlightenment in the Arab nations, he added, but rather that it has been pushed back, as many Arabs have “expanded their distaste for the curled colonial lip into a more general critique of modern life.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, a leading presidential candidate has characterized this same Arab world as filled with hatred for America, condemning billions of people when in fact a Gallup survey of Muslims in more than 30 nations found that 93 percent denounced the attacks on Sept. 11 -- probably a greater percentage than Christians. Indeed, de Bellaigue writes, “Many millions of Muslims live in harmony with the modern values of personal sovereignty and human rights; another self-evident truth in need of reiteration.”

In need of reiteration, that is, because of the disinformation campaign that has taken the liberal arts values of relative and competing truths and distorted them into denials of fact. Thus we have Holocaust deniers, climate-change deniers and hate-fantasy inventors who fabricate nonexistent events like New Jersey Muslim celebrations of the attack on the World Trade Center. When did this deliberate ignorance, incivility and savagery become acceptable? Every newscast produces a sense of disheartened astonishment until we barely know the highly imperfect yet slowly improving modern world we thought we inhabited.

But there is no time for shock. This moment requires that we -- educators in particular -- push back the encroaching darkness. The only question now is, how do we win the war for freed thought, for cognition’s real deal, heuristic and brave?

Four Obligations

Mark Salter suggests a first obligation: to win battles within ourselves, for no one of us is immune from shutting off reason in a season of rage. In other words, we academics must be aware of our own closed mindedness. In a confessional essay in Esquire, Salter, a former aide to Senator John McCain, admits that the nasty bigotries of a presidential contender have caused him to forsake his enlightenment ethic. “I’ve always distrusted people who never question their assumptions or test their opinions against their critics’ arguments. I believe empathy is the starting point of wisdom, and imagining things from an opponent’s point of view is essential to solving problems ….” But now, he explains, disgust and indignation have overtaken his reason, that requirement of liberal education that we consider all views -- not just technically but with feeling -- before we earn our way to our own conclusion. “Nothing anyone could reveal about Trump could get me to change my opinion that he’s an asshole.”

Much as the emotional release afforded by an obscenity is enjoyable, Salter’s usage is striking: “My mind is closed. Slammed shut. Triple bolted. Sealed like a tomb.” This degree of dismissal is deathly, whereas, as Salter is aware, the life of the mind requires openness. “The soul,” writes poet Emily Dickinson, “should always stand ajar.” What Salter is describing is the victory of the reductive dogmatist to make over his opponent in his mirror image. When he has contempt for Trump like Trump exhibits contempt, darkness descends.

This is not to say that we are to live in what author Herman Melville termed “the eternal If.” Although one obligation of a liberal education (not the opposite of “conservative,” but Cicero’s term for an education befitting a free citizenry) is to scout honestly all positions, another is to reach a conclusion and act without compromise upon it. That conclusion may be one of the considered positions, an amalgam of them or a fresh alternative -- just as long as it is earned. In that regard, liberal thought is contrary to talk radio or electoral politics, which both depend upon a barrage of assertion and hyperbole, a parade of unearned confidence in simplicities and catch phrases.

A second obligation, just outside of the self, has to do with the life of the campus. We educators hate hearing a politician call colleges “indoctrination camps” and want to remind politicians like Marco Rubio that we stand for exactly the opposite -- and that it is those on the extreme right who tirelessly seek to indoctrinate and who search for those campus aberrations when we fail to fulfill our ideal of open inquiry. And yet, to the extent that Senator Rubio’s accusation contains any truth, we need to be bold in protecting academe from all forms of indignation that indiscriminately censor opposition.

As Robert Boyers, a professor of English at Skidmore College and editor of Salmagundi, wrote recently, “I find it impossible to imagine a social order I would want to live in that isn’t built around a continuing, even interminable series of arguments,” and that is exactly the social order the university must model. Feeling “unsafe” (granting that at times students experience such a sense authentically) can never justify refusing the right of others to possess a different perspective. Nor should we promulgate the sense that any side of a debate has a monopoly on demagoguery.

Ad bellum purificandum -- to purify war -- is the motto of literary critic Kenneth Burke’s great work, A Grammar of Motives. By that, he meant that we lift conflict, which is inevitable and even potentially fruitful, out of the squalor of physical violence and into the arenas of thought and debate. That’s our job and nothing else. Advocacy is inevitable in our formation of courses and our assignments of readings and experiments, but our task in higher education is to minimize our solipsism, not to roll around in it. Discovery remains the only legitimate side to take.

A third obligation for academics is to further keep the door of the mind ajar by expanding the liberal arts perspective. De Bellaigue backs up his title, “Stop Calling for a Muslim Enlightenment,” by demonstrating that such an enlightenment in fact already took place, with many of the same goals as the European and American versions. But that leads to a requirement of mutuality: “Talk of teaching [Muslims] Voltaire is a joke as long as they cannot teach us back.” Globalism requires far more than promulgating study abroad or admitting wealthy international students to our campuses. It means extending again and again beyond the West and its traditional canon.

The other new reach for the liberal arts should be toward the public life. Many of us entered academe as an alternative to the larger society in which we grew up. Our collective disposition may make it difficult for us to leave that academic grove to apply what we know and to learn from messy experience. But so we must, as poets have taught us for centuries.

In Renaissance pastoral literature, the poet leaves the city for a rural retreat to acquire a calmer and broader perspective, but then he must return to the city of social challenges to apply the attained wisdom. And while we may fear that our engagement will sacrifice the distance required to perform our traditional duty of critiquing society, surely it is far better to constitute reality than merely to condemn it.

For example, when I presided at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, our Humanities at Work program provided small stipends to graduate students in the humanities to work with institutions beyond the academy. We were amazed by the initiative of the students: the comp lit student at Columbia who worked on hate literature with the Anti-Defamation League, the history student at Virginia who started a camp in Mississippi for African-American kids to learn about their heritages, the Texas literature student who wrote capsule biographies of the astronauts for NASA, and another student at Texas, who used many aspects of her discipline of anthropology -- autobiographical writing, folk telling, dance and drawings -- to help teenage girls who had been abused as children to discover a more positive self-image.

The trends toward making scholarship more available and exploring round-trip exchanges between learning and engagement are crucial and hopeful. The most learned among us must not remain mere bystanders to history. Not just a chosen few but all of us, in a variety of ways, need to become public intellectuals.

The Continuing Fight for Enlightenment

But let me turn our value of skepticism against my own argument here. Are we really at war with fundamentalist dogma in an unprecedented manner? Is it not always with us? Yes, but also no. It always exists in the world, but it has rarely been so aggressive. Just as a mudslinging politician may undermine a free thinker’s reason, so too terrorism can call forth our own demagoguery.

The present is particularly dire -- and the situation is not unrelated to the long decline in government support for education or the absence of a strong liberal arts ideal in public K-12 schools. When Senator Rubio asserts that we need more plumbers and fewer philosophers (as if those are exclusive alternatives when every plumber I know is a strong everyday philosopher), he is forwarding not just career advice but a frightening adjuration: do your work and stop thinking. Don’t you dare question. But questioning is academe’s value of all values, and that is why we are indeed at war.

Even if this is a worst of times, however, we also should acknowledge that domestic and international dogmas and demagogues have and will always exist. “The mistake,” my friend Larry Benjamin replied when I made this argument, “is that people think the Enlightenment is a past event that was securely achieved. But it has to be won at every moment.”

Indeed, the key lesson of peak virulent moments, like this one, is to remind us that, every day and forever, we will need to forgo passivity and fight for the values of the liberal arts as we would fight for our most cherished politics -- because they are themselves the deepest politics and the most in need of defense. Assume nothing, these values teach us. And especially now, do not assume the guaranteed continuation of a cheerful and loving reason. Instead, enact it.

Robert Weisbuch, a former president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and of Drew University, now leads Robert Weisbuch and Associates, a consultancy for liberal arts colleges and universities.

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The importance of developing hard data about the value of the humanities (essay)

Making the Case for the Humanities

We need only two things to convince our communities, public officials, local employers and parents of students and prospective students about the value of a degree in the humanities: stories and data.

In the humanities, we have always used stories well. We can assemble lots of anecdotes about our graduates and how, now that they’re gainfully employed, they use what they learned in our classes. Anecdotes are clearly not enough, however. We’re definitely not winning the public relations contest about what aspects of public higher education are worth investing in. So how can we supplement our good stories with good data, while keeping the discussion firmly rooted in the humanities?

In an effort to share strategies and to get better at making the case for the value of humanities education, a group of about 40 humanities faculty members and administrators, local employers, and public humanities representatives in southern New England got together recently. We talked about what student success in the humanities looks like, how we could measure what it gives students and how we would know when we’ve helped students to achieve it.

The question of student success is on everyone’s radar these days, and the discussion usually refers to retention and graduation rates. Our discussion in New England pointed a different way, however. We wanted to bring employers into the conversation to help them to understand what our students are learning and to help us to learn what they value in new employees. That is especially important for those of us who take issues of racial and economic diversity seriously. As Karen Cardozo, assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, pointed out at the meeting, if we can show that humanities degrees have value in the workplace, we can assure working-class students, first-generation students and students of color that following a passion for history, philosophy, literature or music can lead to a good job, too.

Here’s how our meeting went:

First, we assembled by tables, trying to making sure an employer and a public humanities representative were at each table. (Public humanities representatives include those who work at museums, state National Endowment for the Humanities affiliates, cultural councils and the like.) Employers from publishing, local government and local small businesses also participated. (We hope to involve some larger employers next time we meet.) We also mixed in representatives of two- and four-year colleges, as well as public and private institutions.

Each table considered one question at a time, and we then discussed our answers in the group as a whole. Here are the questions:

  • What can a humanities graduate do?
  • What (else) should a humanities graduate be able to do?
  • How can we make sure students graduate with this knowledge or these skills?
  • How can we measure or assess whether they can do what we say they can do?

It was great to have employers at each table, and we moved them around between groups for each question so the tables could get different perspectives. Some of the employers were already savvy about what a humanities education delivers; others weren’t sure what exactly constitutes the humanities.

Together, we compiled a list of the skills that we think graduates have cultivated in their humanities education:

  • Critical thinking
  • Communications skills
  • Writing skills, with style
  • Organizational skills
  • Listening skills
  • Flexibility
  • Creativity
  • Cultural competencies, intercultural sensitivity and an understanding of cultural and historical context, including on global topics
  • Empathy/emotional intelligence
  • Qualitative analysis
  • People skills
  • Ethical reasoning
  • Intellectual curiosity

As part of our list, we also agreed that graduates should have the ability to:

  • Meet deadlines
  • Construct complex arguments
  • Provide attention to detail and nuance (close reading)
  • Ask the big questions about meaning, purpose, the human condition
  • Communicate in more than one language
  • Understand differences in genre (mode of communication)
  • Identify and communicate appropriate to each audience
  • Be comfortable dealing with gray areas
  • Think abstractly beyond an immediate case
  • Appreciate differences and conflicting perspectives
  • Identify problems as well as solving them
  • Read between the lines
  • Receive and respond to feedback

Then we asked what we think our graduates should be able to do but perhaps can’t -- or not as a result of anything we’ve taught them, anyway. The employers were especially valuable here, highlighting the ability to:

  • Use new media, technologies and social media
  • Work with the aesthetics of communication, such as design
  • Perform a visual presentation and analysis
  • Identify, translate and apply skills from course work
  • Perform data analysis and quantitative research
  • Be comfortable with numbers
  • Work well in groups, as leader and as collaborator
  • Take risks
  • Identify processes and structures
  • Write and speak from a variety of rhetorical positions or voices
  • Support an argument
  • Identify an audience, research it and know how to address it
  • Know how to locate one’s own values in relation to a task one has been asked to perform
  • Reflect

They also mentioned a need for better technological, project-management and conversational and interview skills.

We also discussed creating tables that would link the knowledge, skills and aptitudes of the first two questions to the kinds of work students might do after graduation, task by task. We’ve assigned that work to the participating employers.

To make sure that our students can graduate with the knowledge and skills we want to see, we know we would have to make some changes to the way our degrees are structured. Some of the changes we talked about at the meeting were:

  • Providing more faculty development to help professors be more explicit and intentional in language about the skills being taught
  • Creating a one-credit course on the relation of humanities to work and the professions
  • Using required courses (general education) and events (orientation) to introduce the need to connect courses and skills
  • Being intentional about double majoring, adding minors that enable students to pair professional training with humanities
  • Using successful alumni in programming
  • Integrating student employment with academics, through course work or portfolio reflection
  • Infusing reflective writing into courses
  • Encouraging community engagement with the curriculum
  • Providing avenues for student creativity to demonstrate higher-order skills
  • Taking on the idea of maker space—what are the humanities making?
  • Giving students self-assessment skills
  • Developing portfolios that include both work and reflection linking course work to other kinds of engagement, such as employment and student activities
  • Structured work shadowing opportunities
  • Creating local employer/faculty advisory groups to determine workforce needs and establish a common language
  • Building reflection, work, community engagement and shadowing into the credit structure
  • Capitalizing in four-year colleges and universities on work already being done at two-year institutions

The final task at our meeting was to come up with ways to measure whether we are doing what we say we are doing now, as well as if we pursue the changes we want to make. We developed the following list:

  • Alumni surveys, to determine short- and long-term impact of humanities education
  • Student surveys, at entry and exit, about how their ways of thinking have changed
  • Internship supervisor surveys
  • Determining whether local employers hire our graduates, why or why not, and whether those graduates have the needed knowledge and skills
  • Using capstone courses to assess ways students have been asked to combine humanities and work
  • Gathering information that can contribute to big data. Who else is collecting what we seek, and how can we combine their data with ours?

That was the most difficult assignment, and it’s the shortest list that our group developed. That, of course, was not surprising. Assessment has always been challenging, as any regional accreditation team can tell you.

But we had started the afternoon asserting that we want the general public to support humanities education and to understand the value of what we do, and so we knew we must to find good ways to collect evidence. That’ll be a topic in our next meeting.

We agreed that the next step, when we reconvene in May, will be for all of us to have made some progress on our own campuses toward both adding education in the new skills we think humanities students need and finding ways of measuring our success.

If you’re working on humanities student success initiatives, what tactics are you trying? With whom are you working? Are you getting any traction in your institution or region?

Making the case for the humanities can start on the campus, but it ultimately has to convince funders, parents and employers, too. We’re hoping to make southern New England the first Humanities Success Zone in the country -- where an employer with some job openings asks, “What kind of person would add some real value to our company beyond the specific skills we need for this job?” We want the answer that springs to mind to be: a humanities graduate.

Paula M. Krebs is dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University, in Massachusetts. On Twitter, she is @PaulaKrebs.

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Higher ed needs to find better ways to make the case for the humanities (essay)

Making the Case for the Humanities

A friend who teaches classics at a fine liberal arts college told me that she had met the president of the institution walking across campus. He greeted her, and they chatted for a few seconds. Then the president asked, “How can we justify putting resources into Ancient Greek 101 where the enrollment is eight, while the enrollment in Economics 101 is 189?” My friend reported she had become flustered because she was unprepared for that question. She told me she believed that we needed to be doing a better job of making the case for the classics, the humanities and liberal education in general.

Wait a minute, I thought. That’s his job, or ought to be. Her job is to advance and transmit knowledge in a core humanistic discipline. What’s his game? Intimidation? Making himself look good because, in fact, he was not about to let the teaching of ancient Greek end on his watch after more than two centuries on that campus? Or was he genuinely asking for help?

Still, I thought, she is right: we do need to improve the understanding of why studying the humanities is important for today’s students (and administrators). Maybe, I thought, I should pitch in by writing an op-ed piece for Inside Higher Ed making the case for these fields.

But the phrase “making the case” stuck in my craw. It sounded so courtroom, so defense attorney, or rather so much like the message behind a now-terminated presidential candidacy: “Trust me, we know best.” It is surely self-serving.

After all, like most people who write such pieces, I have made my living on the humanities. Of course, I want them to flourish, but who will pay attention to an obviously self-interested spokesperson? Preaching to the choir may win praise from like-minded colleagues but will never be seen by the people who most need to rethink the assumptions that shape contemporary higher education: that college is a commodity sold to student-consumers, it’s all about “workforce readiness,” its goal is “return on investment” and only the STEM disciplines can guarantee success after graduation. These unexamined premises pose the most insidious threat, not just to humanists, but to all students over their lifetimes.

So it’s worth brainstorming about alternative strategies. Here are a half dozen possibilities. A brief brainstorming session with friends and colleagues can, I am sure, produce other, perhaps better ones. However, these are, as we say nowadays, cost-efficient -- that is, they do not take a lot of time away from teaching and scholarship. The effort is focused on helping people outside academe do the heavy lifting. Alumni, civic and business leaders, parents, and undergraduates themselves have more credibility than professional humanists, and they can surprise you by their articulate enthusiasm. And, yes, they can have more impact than another op-ed piece “making the case.”

First: Call attention to what is already available. Many important studies and some eloquent advocacy for the humanities have appeared in recent years: a report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University’s 2013 report “Mapping the Future: The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College,” and “Securing America’s Future: The Power of Liberal Arts Education” from the Council of Independent Colleges, to name just a few. Most of these, however, have had a short shelf life after an initial flurry of attention, and they deserve a much wider readership.

That’s even more likely to be the case with shorter pieces. Here’s one example: Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities, published a powerful op-ed piece, “College Is Not a Commodity,” in The Washington Post not long ago, attacking one of the clichés that are so prevalent these days. The essay is an evergreen that merits a second wave of circulation on social media. In fact, it should be handed to any college administrator who seems to talk commodity talk when they should be thinking hard about how best to educate today’s students.

Second: Check the departmental website. Does it really address the questions that parents and students are likely to have about majoring in the field? Ask some students to grade the content. They’ll probably want to see if claims about the desirability of such a major are backed up by strong evidence and clear argumentation.

Douglas MacLean, a professor in the philosophy department at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, got thinking about that after Marco Rubio made his famous pronouncement, “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less (sic) philosophers.” Answering that claim led to collecting data, as MacLean explained in a Time magazine article, some of which was posted on the department’s webpage. MacLean notes, “Studies have shown philosophy majors have outperformed nearly every other major on the law school aptitude test, the GREs and the GMAT, the admission test for business schools. (They also outearn welders.)”

Third: Ask former students to reflect on their educational experience in the humanities and then disseminate their observations. One way to get the discussion started is to provide the link to comments by students on other campuses, such as the remarks in Frank Bruni’s New York Times piece “College, Poetry and Purpose.” Ask if the experiences cited there match their own. Then put students’ own stories on the departmental website and out on social media. Ask, don’t tell. It doesn’t all have to be glory hallelujah! Find out what graduates working outside the academic humanities have found valuable in their education, then help their message be heard. And keep the email addresses for the following strategy.

Fourth: Put the alumni office to work. Vanessa Ryan, associate dean of the graduate school at Brown University, describes a plan that worked well there: “In 2012, I organized a TEDx [talk] on life, learning and liberal education, bringing back eight alumni from different career paths, including a doctor, an engineer, a film producer and a person in finance. It also features two current Brown faculty members and a current Brown undergraduate, selected through a student challenge event. Each speaker reflected in short talks on the value of liberal education. You can find the videos here and our website here.” Alumni Relations officers love events of this sort and can help organize (and pay for) them.

Fifth: Set clear responsibilities in institutional leaders’ jobs. When selecting a senior administrator -- a dean, provost, chancellor or president -- ask if the job description includes the ability to articulate the value of a broad liberal education. If not, why not? The same questions apply to incentive packages that are increasingly part of senior-level compensation. Making this criterion explicit early on gives leverage once the person is in place -- and especially when performance reviews are conducted.

Finally: Hijack Parents’ Day. Parents are understandably worried about the hollowing out of the economy and the horror stories they hear of students with huge debt loads who can’t find a decent job. Again, both data and descriptions of the actual lives of recent graduates can help allay their fears.

Most important, however, is a carefully structured dialogue among parents themselves. Make sure they have before them the 2014 Purdue-Gallup Index report, a study of more than 30,000 college graduates, showing what aspects of education make a positive difference in the workplace and the community. That report should move the conversation from nervous chatter about debt loads and return on investment to an exploration of what parents really want for their kids and what can best build satisfaction over the long run.

Once you introduce the idea of satisfaction in life, it should be possible to problematize (as we humanists like to say) assumptions about success and rewards. Such discussions play out on the humanities’ home turf: many humanists have thought long and hard about discourses and how they change over time. Here’s a chance to move from theory to practice. That’s what is most needed right now: not making the case but developing richer and more meaningful ways of thinking about what a college education should be.

W. Robert Connor has served as director of the National Humanities Center and president of the Teagle Foundation. He blogs at www.wrbertconnor.com.

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Data show gains for minority students in humanities undergraduate degrees but not doctorates

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Study finds gains in undergraduate degrees awarded, but losses at the doctoral level.

How to chair a humanities department in a challenging environment (essay)

While arguments and counterarguments fly back and forth about the value of the humanistic enterprise, department chairs might be left wondering how to preserve and promote their departments, writes Timothy S. Huebner.

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