Is it irresponsible to advise undergraduates to major in the Humanities?

I am not usually given to screeds about the press.  I advised the newspaper here at Messiah College for several years, I sponsored a recent overhaul of our journalism curriculum, and I continue to have broad if now somewhat indirect responsibility for student media here at the college.  And, secretly, in my heart of hearts I think we need a lot more professors in the humanities looking for how to have second careers in journalism, communicating directly with the public in accessible terms about the thorny difficulties of their work.  So I appreciate journalists, thinking they have a hard job that is mostly under appreciated.  The only world that is worse than a world with a free press is a world without one.

That having been said, today’s piece in the NY Times by Frank Bruni is opinion, and it strikes me as thoughtless opinion, mostly just sounding the cant notes about a liberal arts education that are increasingly becoming the common nonsense of the American public at large.  Although I agree with Bruni that a great deal needs to be done to address the job prospects and job preparation of American College students, the wisdom in his prescriptions is scant and would likely result in an educational program less helpful to students not more.  Says Bruni after lamenting the job prospects of anthropology and philosophy majors (there are hordes of them out there, have you noticed):

I single out philosophy and anthropology because those are two fields — along with zoology, art history and humanities — whose majors are least likely to find jobs reflective of their education level, according to government projections quoted by the Associated Press. But how many college students are fully aware of that? How many reroute themselves into, say, teaching, accounting, nursing or computer science, where degree-relevant jobs are easier to find? Not nearly enough, judging from the angry, dispossessed troops of Occupy Wall Street.

The thing is, today’s graduates aren’t just entering an especially brutal economy. They’re entering it in many cases with the wrong portfolios. To wit: as a country we routinely grant special visas to highly educated workers from countries like China and India. They possess scientific and technical skills that American companies need but that not enough American students are acquiring.

via The Imperiled Promise of College –

I can’t get past the irony that Bruni was an English major in college and has a degree in journalism.  Real growth industries.  I realize the ad hominem, but frankly, Frank ought to know better.

My overriding concern is that these bromides about channeling students in to areas where there supposedly will be jobs rests on multiple assumed grounds that are shaky at best, sand at worst.

First, it is terribly misguided to believe that what a student thinks they want when they are 17–or what we think they ought to want–is an adequate index of what they will want or what they will succeed at.  College is first and foremost a time of exploration and development, a time of discovery.  Most students change their major after entering college, most end up doing something after college that is not directly related to their fields of study, and most will change fields and go in different directions during the course of their lives.  When I was 17 I thought I wanted to be a lawyer and possibly go in to politics;  I began as a major in History and Political Science, then shifted to English because I enjoyed the classes more.  I had a conversion experience at the hands of T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and Joe McClatchey–not the poet, the Victorianist at Wheaton College where I did my undergraduate work, the best teacher I ever had–and decided to go for a degree in creative writing in the hopes that I would be the next Walker Percy.  It wasn’t until my second year of graduate school that I decided I loved higher education and wanted a PhD, and it wasn’t until I was nearly 50 that I decided administration could be a noble calling. (Others still doubt).  A long way from my early dream of being a congressman or a Senator, a long way from the dream of being a William Faulkner or a Hemingway.

It is secondarily irresponsible to believe that we can know what the hot jobs will be in the 2020, much less 2030 or 2040, despite our prognostications.  Five years ago Finance majors were littering the coffeeshops of Camp Hill (ok, there’s only one), having graduated from the best colleges only to be back home living with their parents.  In my own case, I am very sure that whatever the hot jobs were in the 1970s, novelist and Senator were not among them. But whatever we thought they were, I’m sure they aren’t all that hot any more. We do not, in fact, know what turns the economy will take, though we can know that we need students who are broadly educated, in whom creativity has been inculated and encouraged, and who possess the flexibility and the skills that can be adapted to a rapidly changing job environment.  There’s nothing about majoring in philosophy or anthropology that prevents students from having that kind of “portfolio”–indeed, their majors do much to produce the skills they will need, and in combination with a general education and elective choices that can develop their skills and knowledge base in technical field or in business, such a student could be extremely desirable for a wide range of jobs in the economy of the future.

Thirdly, WHY PICK ON PHILOSOPHY?  It makes up less than one half of one percent of all college majors in the country and anthropology majors not too many more.  Does Bruni really believe this is a solution to our economic difficulties?  GET RID OF PHILOSOPHY MAJORS.  There’s a political slogan with legs and an economic program with brio.  Why even pick on humanities majors as a whole–depending on which set of majors you take up, they make up between 8 and 12 percent of the nationwide student population and have for a very long time.  Their unemployment rates are somewhat higher that the nation as a whole–though not so drastic as the doom sayers suggest–but there are so many fewer of us it is laughable to believe that the unemployment problem is going to be solved by getting those who remain to drop what they are doing and become unhappy engineers.  Bruni was an English major so I will forgive his weaknesses with statistics.

Finally, is it really healthy for the nation to believe that we are going to be better off creating an educational system in which all students are wedged in to jobs for which they are ill suited, for which they have no personal gifts or desires, and through which they have fewer and fewer options.   Is this really what education for a free society will look like?  When I was young, we descried the fact that the Soviet Union forced students into narrow frames of life in the names of the Soviet five year plans.  We now do this in the name of markets and call it “incentivizing.”

It is not irresponsible to believe that colleges should do more to prepare students for the job market that will await them, but it is irresponsible to believe we will solve the problems facing students by forcing them all in to preprofessional or technical majors.  Indeed, if I can be forgiven one more point, it is bizarre that Bruni thinks a student’s portfolio is made up of his or her college major.  A student brings or ought to bring an entire panoply of experiences associated with college life, in and outside the classroom, and through internships and other forms of learning as well.  Believing that we can solve students’ problems by channeling them in to a major demonstrates a poor understanding of both how education works and how the job market works.

We need to do better, but doing what Bruni suggests will be doing disaster, not doing better.  We need to remember, first, to paraphrase Andy Chan down at Wake Forest, that we are in the education business not the job placement business, even if students getting jobs is important.  We are not a job shop, we are a culture and community that touches the whole of student lives–including their preparations for a career after college.  When we are at our best that is for their individual good and their individual portfolios, but also for the good of the nation as a whole–not just its economy.  That is what responsible education looks like.

11 thoughts on “Is it irresponsible to advise undergraduates to major in the Humanities?

  1. dysfunctional literacy

    “College is first and foremost a time of exploration and development, a time of discovery.”
    I kind of agree with that, but a lot of people in college right now can’t afford to pay for that exploration and development, and the taxpayers probably aren’t in the mood right now to pay for their exploration and development either. Maybe (I’m not married to this opinion, I’m just thinking with my keyboard) fewer people going to college would help.

    1. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

      Cost is absolutely a huge issue, and certainly is even more so at private schools such as my own. This is related to the question of majors, but I think it is a separate issue. Although colleges cost a great deal, there is absolutely no reason why a student in philosophy who minored in a tech or science field,or double-majored in a language like Chinese, has two or three good internships, works for some campus extracurricular group, and receives appropriate career counseling, can’t be in a strong position for all kinds of jobs. They will be in a better position for good jobs than a professional school major who does nothing else, has no experience, and has mediocre grades. The idea that a major is what gets you a job is fallacious except in those very few jobs that require a specific undergraduate degree.

      The irony at public universities is that politicians complain about the costs of higher education while cutting budgets year after year. This attitude affects private schools indirectly to the degree that federal and state programs providing direct student aid have also been curtailed.

  2. Grace

    I get frustrated when people bash the humanities students for having no job prospects because in this economy I know plenty of unemployed engineering and science majors. Remember as well that in my graduating class at least (and I graduated in 2010), people had settled into their majors before the recession hit and had to deal with the consequences. I ended up switching fields for grad school because a degree that had plenty of job prospects pre-recession was now useless.

    Honestly though I think that as a country we should be focusing more on job prospects for the youth, even if that means shifting the focus to trade schools. The exploration and personal development isn’t worth the debt, and I’ve learned more from reading and studying on my own than I learned in my college lectures.

    1. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Grace. As I indicated in a previous comment, the issue of cost is obviously huge and we’ve got to get our minds around that in higher education. I think from the point of view of making a decision as a young person today there are two or three things to think about, a short term and a long term view. In the short run, it might make sense to choose a trade school and go for an immediate degree that (you think and hope and pray) will get you a job. This is not unreasonable. The problem that my post points out is that job markets vary significantly from year to year and from region to region. So starting in on an exclusively job oriented associates program could make some short term sense, but it actually comes with no more guarantees than what you suggested. Secondarily, doing an associates degree doesn’t stop the question of exploration and discovery in its tracksinevitably young people are going to be discovering and exploring in this context, but they will be doing it in a much more restricted context and developing a narrower set of skills to book. A traditional four year college with a robust liberal arts component and the opportunity to explore minor fields and electives actually does give you the chance to discover options you didn’t know existed when you were 17, develop skills and knowledge in multiple areas, explore the kinds of work you like to do, and apply all that to a broader job search and broader possibilities. Moreover, such an education equips you for a broader range of possibilities of learning and adapting as you go along. By comparison, I think this education is cheaper and more rewarding in the long runboth fiscally and metaphysicallyfor both students and the country at large. None of that, of course, will solve the immediate problem of costs or of the dearth of employment possibilities at the moment, but in the immediate crisis, its important to not lose site of the long view, the deep horizons.

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      Peter Kerry Powers Dean of the School of Humanities Messiah College–Box 3009 One College Avenue Grantham, PA 17027 Office: 717-766-2511, ext. 7376 Cell: 717-512-8709 FAX 717-796-4795 School of the Humanities Website: Young Writers Workshop Website: Personal Website (such as it is):

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  3. Jenny Zimmerman

    I super-liked this post, but it won’t let me “like” it unless I am a wordpress member, which I am not.

    I also think senior year of high school (AP classes) and college teach people how to learn and study something. Every job will have training courses and professional development, and so people have to keep learning even after college, even after they land a job.

    I think humanities majors help people think in different kinds of ways, focusing on different types of analysis and argument depending on your focus, and every job will require you to think, analyse and respond in a professional manner. Too much specialisation and focus will yield too narrow results and it seems that people who can marry different discourses and ideas are the ones who are pioneering into new fields, businesses, markets, and futures.

    If there are no jobs… create your own. (What humanities majors essentially did awhile ago before Humanities was a major).

  4. Pingback: Unemployed Philosophers Abounding; Or, It’s Much Less Fun to Talk About Unemployed Business Majors | Read, Write, Now

  5. Sheila Curran

    I am a consultant, entrepreneur, career expert, and organizational development director. I also have a degree in Russian with a Persian minor. Whether you get a job with a humanities degree depends on how well you link the skill sets you gained in and out of the classroom with the needs of the employer. You also need relevant experience–usually gained through internships. Colleges need to stop apologizing for promoting the liberal arts and commit to helping students build the skills and experience that will enable them to get their foot in the door to entry-level professional position after graduation. Once there, liberal arts grads will often find it easy to convince the employer that they’re capable of higher level work.

  6. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Shelia. [Side note, I hate to say it but every time I hear someone say they majored in Russian I have sharp pangs of envy]. What you describe is exactly the kind of thing that was talked about at the ReThinking Success conference. A heavy emphasis on internships and and experience, but also being able to talk about and think through exactly how your liberal arts skills translate in to the workplace. We in higher education need to do a great deal more in that regard.

  7. Pingback: Annotating Kierkegaard; an intellectual’s appreciation | Read, Write, Now

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