Rare Air, Impracticality, and Other Stigmas Against the Humanities

A father recently visited campus. He wondered if Gutenberg was right for his daughter.

The man was a bright, no-nonsense sort of guy. He owned a furniture store that he hoped his daughter would someday inherit. He enjoyed meeting the faculty, sitting in on discussion, and Gutenberg’s price. But he couldn’t leap one hurdle. “It just seems so impractical,” he said. His daughter did not attend Gutenberg.

Are degrees like Gutenberg’s impractical? As Gutenberg’s admissions officer, I hear this complaint too often. It is a strong deterrent for some students. But is it deserved?

I must admit, studying the humanities has rarely been done for practical benefits. The Odyssey never taught anyone to bake bread; Jane Austen never taught anyone how to build a suspension bridge. For this reason, I advise prospective students to go into engineering if that is what they want.

But many students enter college not knowing what they want. Yet even these students view the humanities with skepticism. The humanities, according to some of these students, suffer from a “rare air” stigma. These students imagine that humanities classes are populated by slightly batty Homer students who sip chamomile tea and pontificate on wildly abstract subjects.

Guess who caused this rare-air stigma? Those in the humanities did.

Yes, many tweedy humanities professors have taken unwarranted pride in discussions of ancients like Homer and Virgil. “We are above it,” they seem to say. “Let others toil in the impurities of the marketplace; we prefer the rare air of the Acropolis.”

I wish these professors would drop this pretension. These professors (secure in their own job and income) help create an anti-market idealism in their students. Refusing to work for “the man” became (especially in the 1960s) a badge of honor. But this misguided idealism did little to slow “the man”; he is alive and well in the marketplace. The only thing this idealism accomplished was keeping many idealistic students unemployed. Instead of merely warning students against selling out, humanities profs should encourage their students toward industry and fruitfulness.

There’s another reason I wish professors would drop this “rare air” stigma: The professors don’t exist above the marketplace. Their students and their jobs are prone to the same economic peaks and valleys as shoe manufacturers. Study of the humanities spikes during bull markets and sinks during bear markets. During the Roaring Twenties, the humanities thrived; during the shoestring thirties, the humanities faltered. (It got so bad in 1935 that The Princeton Tiger cartooned liberal arts grads receiving loaves of bread with their diplomas.) The humanities popped again during the booming sixties and stagnated again during the seventies.

Again, the humanities do not exist for the purpose of becoming wealthy. Studying great books like The Odyssey and Pride and Prejudice is for maturing our innermost being. We read these books to cultivate, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, “the dark vast forest” inside us. This is our primary mission.

But our primary mission ought not blind us from the fact that we, too, are part of the marketplace.

Today, we are in the middle of the market against the humanities. A recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences shows that recent undergrads have fled the humanities for “practical” majors. Furthermore, at Yale and Harvard, humanities-majors have dwindled, while “practical” majors have increased.

Hopefully the relatively good news coming from economic sectors will encourage students to reenlist in the humanities. But, even if we begin booming again, we might suffer from students believing our degree is impractical.

But are the humanities impractical? Not at all. In fact, I am convinced that humanities students are better prepared for the contemporary marketplace than many “practical” degrees. But you’ll have to wait for my next blog post to hear why.


2 thoughts on “Rare Air, Impracticality, and Other Stigmas Against the Humanities

  1. Tim,

    I have to admit that studying the humanities makes it difficult for students to find that first entry level job. An Humanities degree does not scream “hire me” on a resume. But that is only the beginning of the story. And if we (those of us who have had that first job, and progressed in our careers) look back that first job wasn’t worth having anyway. It was simply a way to get one’s foot in the door.
    That is where the story gets interesting, and where having an Humanities type degree shows its true value. It is once you are in the marketplace, working side by side with that engineer or bridge builder, who may know formula X, but who cannot write or communicate with his colleagues that the Humanities degree shows its real worth.
    An Humanities degree teaches one to think, and if nothing else teaches one how to write and communicate. If one knows how to think, one can learn formula X pretty quickly, and even determine if perhaps formula Y might be a better solution.
    The Humanities graduate will have a leg up once in the marketplace, simply because they know how to write and communicate their ideas. It is these two skills–thinking and writing/communication– that will propel the Humanities graduate above their peers when it comes time for promotions.
    So the Humanities graduate will have to work hard to break into the marketplace with their “impractical” degree, but once in the marketplace they are uniquely qualified to shine and distinguish themselves within the marketplace.

    • Paul,

      I graduated with a liberal arts degree (from a college that wasn’t as interesting at Gutenberg.) My experience is exactly as you described: I floundered for a year or two; couldn’t get my foot in the door. But once I found my way in, I figured things out pretty quickly.

      Thanks for your response. It’s great to hear your real-time feedback who’s seen humanities’ majors struggle then succeed.

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