However desirable or necessary, marketing the humanities is, at best, difficult. We live in a culture increasingly bent on individual economic survival and seeking “practical” education or training as a means to that end. Moreover, the culture suffers the consequences of unethical business practice and increasingly demagogic public debate (witness the timely success of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). As college students become older (average age of undergraduate students in the U.S. is 26) and as they seek certification of skills to improve their career and employment prospects, of what use are the humanities? Many students and employment hiring officers regard study of the humanities as a waste of time and money, as a luxury that only the few can afford. And some institutions agree with them! Those who believe, as I do, that the humanities confer much-needed social and individual benefits face a daunting challenge.
Scholarship and teaching
Trapped by the ivy surrounding their proverbial tower, humanities faculty must find some way of escape. Because of current reward structures, faculty continue to churn out jargon-laden, scholarly monographs that hardly anyone reads. Too often, faculty work in their own small, specialist room in the tower, in conversation only with similarly minded specialists, essentially cut off from concerns of the general public, including their students. Study of the humanities for its own sake must be removed to the back burner. As the AACU states in its 2008 report, “College Learning for the New Global Century,”
In the last century, higher education divided educational programs into two opposed categories—an elite curriculum emphasizing liberal arts education “for its own sake” and a more applied set of programs emphasizing preparation for work. Today, the practices are changing but the old Ivory Tower view of liberal education lingers. It is time to retire it.
Escaping the ivory tower must include overhauling promotion and tenure criteria along lines advocated by Ernest Boyer in Scholarship Reconsidered. By engaging in “scholarship of integration, application, or teaching,” liberal arts faculty, including the humanities, can engage the concerns and interests of the general public. Such an overhaul is long overdue.
Following upon such a shift in what counts as scholarship, the abundance of general outlets for publication (e-books, online discussion forums, blogs, news and cultural outlets such as Huffington Post or Salon.com, university or program websites, online academic journals, etc.) provides many opportunities for faculty to enrich cultural and political discussion in the public sphere. They can join journalists in producing high-quality work, free from scholarly jargon, that informs and enlightens public discussion.
One compelling, recent example of such an approach occurs in the work of Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of the recent bestseller, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. A professor at Boston College, Shell has written for The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times. She focuses on narrative non-fiction, “the use of fiction techniques to tell true stories that people will actually want to read, be it in print, web, or documentary form.” In such ways, scholars in the liberal arts can enhance the level of public discussion and communicate, albeit subliminally, the relevance of their scholarship.
Humanities faculty have long decried the “careerism” of uninterested students who are compelled to take their courses because of curricular requirements. That has to stop. Only the wealthy can afford to study the humanities while ignoring career concerns. As I argued previously, the perspective and sense of empathy that the humanities provide are needed more than ever in our society. And as important as basic communication and critical thinking skills are in the workplace, humanities faculty should not be relegated merely to teaching such skills, most often on a part-time basis. To address these issues, a new partnership between the liberal arts and career preparation must be forged.
In these times, colleges must require serious career preparation of all students, including especially humanities majors. Adult and traditional-aged students and their families should wonder no longer what they will be able to do after completing their studies. This matter cannot be addressed simply by publicizing the now familiar lists of “What Can I Do with a Major in English, Philosophy, History, . . . ?” The situation now demands that all students be required to formulate a definite career plan, approved by the Career Services Office, that is supported by a relevant academic plan before registering for courses.
Quite simply, this means that students in the humanities must take courses and gain relevant experience through internships, employment, or service learning projects in fields that provide them with employable skills. For example, English majors could prepare themselves for electronic publishing, web design and writing, business communications, grant writing, or marketing, as well as for more traditional careers such as secondary teaching. The possibilities are too numerous even for a lengthy blog posting. The point is that every student should garner experience in some employable area and in general study of the liberal arts that goes beyond introduction to the academic disciplines as they now exist. And since this is so vital to students’ personal success, seeing that it happens cannot be left merely to academic advisors: professional career services staff must be involved as well.
Getting the Word Out
If humanities faculty expand their scholarly horizons to become more engaged with public affairs and cultural developments, and if they can be appropriately compensated for their effort, the relevance of their work to personal and social well-being will become more obvious. And if colleges can make the programmatic and structural changes necessary to marry the liberal arts directly to career preparation, the importance of such study will withstand attack more readily. Colleges who make such changes first will stand out from the crowd. I keep looking for them. Are they out there?
According to the AACU report cited above, business leaders say they want more students who possess good communication, critical thinking skills, and cultural knowledge or perspective. I don’t believe them. At least, they appear not to hire graduates with exactly those skills. And the atrocious writing in business documents and on the web shows that businesses desperately need employees with those skills and cultural perspective. After all his years in prison, Gordon Gekko learned essentially nothing—certainly nothing of empathy or what it means to be reflective. Those of us who are devoted to what the humanities can deliver to society must work to change that.