The Crisis of ‘the Humanities’

Emma Mincks


In the current economic climate, and with the boom of the technology industry, college students may be drawn to fields like computer science, business, and avenues of study that lead into specific career paths. On the other hand, many students who graduate with degrees in the liberal arts and humanities struggle financially after graduation, even to the point of  requiring federal assistance. This struggle is part of an ongoing conversation of the “crisis” in the humanities and a concern for those who are trying to succeed with degrees in English, Art, History, and Philosophy, to name a few. The practicality and importance of the humanities  have been debated for a while, with these majors often being ridiculed as “worthless” because they may not directly translate into a successful career. 


However, studies show that students are still obtaining these degrees, despite the lack of cultural or financial support. This is perhaps no more striking than at the highest piers of graduate education. Many people with Ph.D.s in the humanities are now graduating without any job prospects; budget cuts are crippling departments in terms of funding, teacher pay and research. Student debt for graduates in the humanities can be crippling, and changes are being made to departments in order to shorten the length of the Ph.D. in the humanities to as few as four years in some fields, as well as to offer more career counseling and support for a variety of career paths after graduation. 


The Humanities departments of the university system, such as History, Philosophy, Art and English, generally receive significantly less funding, have fewer opportunities to hire new professors, travel for research, or pay the professors who already earned tenure than departments such as science and engineering, even though they may have the same number (if not more) of students. With prospects looking dismal for many graduates, little funding to help defend departments, and a disheartening conversation hanging  over any prospective graduate or undergraduate student in the humanities, is there any reason to earn a degree in the  field in the 21st century?


Critiques of the Humanities

Modern universities are becoming more frequently corporatized, although education cannot be outsourced in the same way that jobs can. The worth of the degree is now evaluated in a system that recognizes job placement and earnings over any other measure of success. With the placement for tenure track teaching jobs are continuing to decline at an alarming rate in the humanities, it might not seem practical to devote years to a Ph.D. program when the ideal academic jobs might not exist at the end of the endeavor.


Many other degrees are purposed for specific careers. For example, if someone gets an MBA in accounting, they will do so in order to prepare themselves for a career in accounting. Many people choose to teach with their humanities backgrounds, but many others branch off into unrelated fields. Those who critique the humanities often argue that because the degrees in the humanities are not trade practice for a career, they are currently useless.


Many others critique the humanities because they argue that there is too much subjectivity for measuring success.


Although there are also many advocates around the globe, it is also difficult to defend the humanities against budget cuts. This may be due to there being fewer measurable outcomes in the fields of the humanities. Modern society often seems to value money over academic or cultural pursuits, so success in the humanities might not be recognized as much of a success from other departments that have the ability to illustrate monetary gains for the university. The humanities may also have less funding from former graduates of Philosophy, English and Art departments because graduates from these sectors might not be making the high salaries that graduates from other fields, such as Finance, are earning. Therefore the money does not get pumped back into the system through large donations.


Despite these challenges, departments such as English, History and Philosophy often carry the brunt of the core requirements for the university, such as introductory writing classes, history classes and language classes. In addition, there are many who argue tirelessly for the value of the humanities, and creative initiatives are beginning to take shape in defense of these studies.



Dr. Gail Houston, chair of the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of New Mexico, argues that the humanities are of both cultural and practical value in their “real world” applications. She points out that “hard sciences and social sciences depend upon metaphor (the stuff of fiction and poetry, Shakespeare and Woolf) to describe abstract algorithms and theories. Lawyers must be very meticulous in the way they use grammar and punctuation: Indeed, a recent court ruling was based entirely on the meaning of a sentence in a legal brief that was missing a comma.”


A number of digital humanities initiatives have arisen in defense of the humanities, and to create more of an online and technological presence or interaction for discussions about the humanities. The site 4Humanities, founded by Alan Liu in the U.S., Geoffrey Rockwell in Canada, and Melissa Terras in the U.K. includes a dispersed collective that acts as an advisory board. They have started a series of advocacy campaigns, including their "Humanities, Plain & Simple" initiative, which puts the value of the humanities into simple prose. The 4Humanities collective has also organized an Outreach Humanities Project that produces interviews and statements from representative or prominent non-humanities or non-academic people willing to speak out on behalf of the humanities.


Among many other outreach projects in the works, this collective is also involved in a Humanities Infographics venture that was inspired by the project from the College of London Centre for the Digital Humanities’ “Quantifying Digital Humanities Infographics” project. The founders point out that the 4Humanities infographics program will clearly illustrate the disparity of the “ecosystem” of the humanities between former times and recent budget cuts. So much for not being able to quantify or measure outcomes in the humanities.



The real value of the Humanities in the 21st Century

In the world of business, students with degrees in the humanities may have an upper hand because they may be better equipped to draft reports, write company emails and handbooks, design visually appealing company documents and understand convoluted underwriting. This unexpected advantage of the liberal arts degree is touted by advocates for the humanities and by business representatives alike. For example, Susan de la Vergne’s sites Liberal Arts Advantage and For English Majors both advocate the important edge students gain in business from these degrees, and give specific examples of how those with degrees in the liberal arts and humanities are vital for increasing an edge in business. 


Getting a degree in the humanities not only gives students the ability to focus on what they love and are interested in during their schooling, but it also allows them to do anything they are motivated to do beyond those fields. For example, English and Art majors can easily go into marketing or advertising and put their knowledge of visual and written language and cultural history to succeed in these career paths. Backgrounds in art have also been shown to increase scientific innovation and creativity and assist in new important research.


If someone with a degree in the humanities is laid off in the current economy, they can easily find other work that requires critical thinking, reading, writing, oral communication skills, and other skill sets that degrees in the liberal arts and humanities emphasize. These degrees give open-minded graduates the ability to navigate difficult texts in order to find another job quickly, which may be in a field they have no experience with. The heavily criticized lack of career path specificity allows students with degrees in subjects such as History, English and Philosophy to look into any career avenue they choose and navigate job changes with ease. 


In other words, this is exactly what then makes these degrees valuable in the 21st century and in an economy that requires creativity, innovation, critical thinking and a broad skill set for survival.


Author Bio:

Emma Mincks is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos: Musee Rodin, Paris; Apple Technologies. 

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this article would be better if you interviewed some experts in the field. 


Thank you for this Emma! I am actually a part of humanities. I gradauted with Liberal Arts and am having the hardest time finding what I want to do. I understand many go to college to make more money in the long run but what plays a part the most here are life experience degrees. Most should not go to college to make the most money, but to learn and get a job doing what they love most. I went to college to progress in my field and I plan on going back to school one day to pick up something else. Once again, thank you for this exciting post. Hope this finds you and many well. Have a great day!


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