Andrew Sullivan commented this morning on an article by Paul Jay and Gerald Graff at Inside Higher Ed called “Fear of Being Useful.” Sullivan’s title was more blunt: “The Humanities Aren’t Totally Useless After All.” His comments and his excerpts from the original article are good, plus he includes the graph shown above from Georgetown University showing unemployment rates between those who studied various academic disciplines.
I teach humanities (theater arts) at a community college, where vocation-specific training has traditionally been very important. We have plenty of students at my college who are here to gain specific knowledge about a subject in order to get a job in that field. Medical, construction trades, manufacturing, and so on. The instruction is (hopefully) up-to-date, thorough, and will lead to a greater chance of success… in that field.
Times change quickly, though. Today’s specialized knowledge is old news tomorrow. What’s the demand for FORTRAN or COBOL programmers these days? Car engines (and robotics and electrical codes and…) keep getting more complex and computerized. And you probably don’t want someone dealing with your medical condition whose education stopped when they left college.
Damon Horowitz, director of engineering at Google […] insisted recently in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “From Technologist to Philosopher: Why You Should Quit Your Technology Job and Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities,” that “if you are worried about your career … getting a humanities Ph.D. is not only not a danger to your employability, it is quite the opposite. I believe there no surer path to leaping dramatically forward in your career than to earn a Ph.D. in the humanities.” “You go into the humanities to pursue your intellectual passion,” he explains, “and it just so happens, as a byproduct, that you emerge as a desired commodity for industry.”
Horowitz, a leading figure in artificial intelligence and the head of a number of tech startups, ought to know. He took a break from his lucrative career to enroll in Stanford’s Ph.D. program in philosophy because he figured out that in order to do his job in technology well he needed to immerse himself in the humanities. “I realized that, while I had set out in AI to build a better thinker, all I had really done was to create a bunch of clever toys.” Horowitz came to realize that the questions he was “asking were philosophical questions — about the nature of thought, the structure of language, the grounds of meaning.” Returning to the humanities, Horowitz took time out from the world of artificial intelligence to study “radically different approaches to exploring thought and language,” such as philosophy, rhetoric, hermeneutics and literary theory. As he studied intelligence from these perspectives he “realized just how limited my technologist view of thought and language was. I learned how the quantifiable, individualistic, ahistorical — that is, computational — view I had of cognition failed to account for whole expanses of cognitive experience (including, say, most of Shakespeare).”
It’s true that we usually continue to learn and update our skills on the job, and continuing education is a requirement for many jobs that require licensing. The ability to do that self-learning, though, begins with learning how to learn. Critical thinking. The ability to ask good questions and expect good answers. The ability to think both creatively and logically. Good writing and intelligent conversation. Skills that are in demand no matter what kind of job you have or aspire to have. As the New York Times’ David Brooks is quoted in Jay and Graff’s article:
Studying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo.
I find a great depth of thought in most of my students. Not all of them come to college with the ability to express that depth. Some have even been encouraged to “not ask too many questions” by well-meaning parents, teachers and counselors. Given the challenge of trying to understand and inhabit a character, though, they have to get out of their own heads for a few moments and consider someone else’s point of view. It’s liberating for many of them, and they find it’s something they can then apply to many other life choices as well. It’s critical thinking. They’re not just soaking in facts and figures and regurgitating them on tests, they’re learning to learn.
And this ability to think and learn is in demand:
As Associate Dean [Scott] Sprenger [of Brigham Young University] notes, “the usefulness of the humanities” paradoxically “derives precisely from their detachment from any immediate or particular utility. Experts tell us that the industry-specific knowledge of a typical vocational education is exhausted within a few years,” if not “by the time students enter the workforce.” It is no accident, he observes, “that a large percentage of people running Fortune 500 companies (one study says up to 40 percent) are liberal arts graduates; they advance more rapidly into mid- and senior-level management positions, and their earning power tends to rise more significantly than people with only technical training.”
Studying theater or art or English lit or history or composition may not guarantee a specific job right out of school. (Then again, neither does specialized vocational training.) It can, however, prepare the student for a lifetime of learning, adapting and adjusting to new jobs, new challenges and new realities.
Related: Should you go to college? Yes.