The humanities are dying. Each year brings ever more dire statistics — the number of students majoring in history, for instance, is down 45 percent from its 2007 peak. The number of English majors has plummeted since 1997, down by nearly half. As a newly minted, newly employed doctor of the humanities, it feels like I’m in academia’s version of a Blockbuster video store circa 2010.
As you might guess, scores of concerned university professors constantly debate how to save the humanities, or even whether there’s any point. Five years ago Benjamin Schmidt, a history professor at Northeastern University, wrote an article arguing that “the ‘Humanities in crisis’ story is seriously overstated.” Recently, he offered a kind of mea culpa, citing data showing continued declines in the number of humanities majors, even as the economy recovers. The reasons are myriad, but Schmidt argues that students are choosing majors they think will lead to more bountiful and lucrative careers, even though jobs data doesn’t support the belief that humanities majors have far fewer job prospects and earn significantly less pay.
What is true is that there is a high demand for specific skill-based jobs in STEM fields, and a persistent perception that humanities degrees do not prepare students for these jobs. This isn’t all wrong: an English major just out of college is obviously less qualified than an engineering major for a job as an engineer.
But the skills argument — misconception — is nothing new. When I wanted to major in English in college nearly 20 years ago, my mom was incredulous. Here I was, about to be the first in my family to attend college, and Mom was sure studying English would waste my chance at a good job. She wanted to know about my job prospects, so we went right to the source. I’ll never forget the awe and trepidation I felt sitting across the desk from Dr. Ann Ferguson, then chairwoman of the English department and the very picture of the wise old owl professor. As we sat in her dimly lit office, surrounded by bookshelves that looked as if they would buckle under the weight of her library, my mom asked her what I could actually do with an English major. She answered — to my joy and my mother’s chagrin — “Anything he wants.”
Well, yes and no. I have plenty of fellow English-major friends who went into other fields — public affairs, broadcasting, advertising — and who would surely say that the skills they learned in reading critically and writing persuasively have helped them. But they probably would have been better off minoring in English and choosing majors in their eventual fields. For my part, I only ever wanted to write and teach. I’ve spent the better part of two decades in and out of graduate school, patching together a living as an adjunct professor and freelance writer while I pursued my goal of being a college professor. This past September, I became an assistant professor of humanities/general education at Regis College. Note that I was hired to teach general education courses in the humanities — this semester my courses are ethics, religious studies, and English — not courses in my specialty, American literary journalism.
My position might just represent a way forward for the humanities. People still need to study literature, philosophy, religion, and history, and there’s no shortage of think pieces coming out of the business world suggesting that “humanities and business go hand in hand,” as a writer in the Globe opined in 2016. I often hear this, but I thought it was something successful people would say so I wouldn’t feel bad about my English degree. Then I found myself in a conversation with a hedge fund manager and an accountant, fathers of a couple of my daughter’s classmates. After they asked me what I did, I got to hear firsthand about the scourge of cookie-cutter MBAs, and why their fields need people who understand ethics and can write. Ethical judgment and effective writing are two of the seven most important skills businesses want, according to a recent report from the Association of American Colleges & Universities.
Future stockbrokers and engineers of the world still need to know how to make good choices, read critically, and write clearly. But beyond these skills, studying the humanities makes one a better person, in possession of greater emotional intelligence and empathy — attributes that, like humanities professorships, feel like they are in short supply these days.
So, we still need the humanities. But my colleagues and I have to stop worrying about how many undergraduates are willing to horrify their parents by majoring in something so supposedly useless as English. Instead, let’s work to further integrate ourselves into the core curricula — if Rosie wants to be an engineer, she should major in engineering. But she should also be required to take my ethics course, and probably my rhetoric course, too. Also, I’d be happy to act as an adviser on her senior project.
This will create the dual benefit of imparting the skills that employers want as well as the values they expect from their employees. I don’t have to understand business-speak to know this is what you’d call a win-win.