Joanna Weiss

Humanities at risk


I’ve often said that the most important thing I learned in college, as a humanities major, was how to fake it when I hadn’t done the reading.

It’s a joke, but it’s also basically true, and a valuable skill, for sure: how to speak extemporaneously, how to sense what your audience wants from you, how to make big inferences from small amounts of data.

But it’s hard to explain that to an employer — which might be part of the reason so many students shy away from the humanities today. They’re worried about finding jobs and paying back mountains of debt. They also sense widespread derision over “wasting” a degree. Harvard last week announced a massive campaign to stem the exodus. But on a radio show last winter, the governor of North Carolina voiced the more common view: “If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to private school. But I don’t want to subsidize that if it’s not going to get someone a job.”


Woe to the life of the mind! Except that he has a point. The tragedy of the humanities is that it has become cordoned off: viewed as separate, arcane, and indulgent, instead of something that undergirds the other parts of life. And maybe, instead of trying to steer students back to humanities degrees, we should be rethinking the way we teach humanities in general. We should be foisting those thinking skills on everyone, a bit. And recognizing that sometimes, the classics can wait.

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I spoke the other day to Jessica DePamphilis, 23, who is getting a master’s degree in English at the University of Massachusetts Boston — despite her professors’ warnings about what she’s getting herself into. She loves to read, wants to teach, and hopes to work full-time in a middle school soon.

She teaches a course called “The Art of Literature” to UMass undergraduates, helping them prepare the writing samples that are a graduation requirement. Many see her subject as a chore — the one class where they’re forced to analyze fiction, against their will.

“I’m a science major,” some tell her, “so I’m never going to have to use this again.”

The result is the situation we have now: We churn out plenty of college graduates who can’t write a coherent paragraph. We churn out others who can assemble deep academic thoughts that won’t help them get well-paying jobs.


I wonder what would happen if we started from scratch — if we thought of college as something that prepared you for work and expanded your mind, and we demanded both of everyone? A prescription for a well-rounded student could go something like this:

1) Everyone takes a film class. (Content can vary, as long as it includes Fellini’s “8½,” and “The Big Lebowski.”)

2) Everyone takes statistics.

3) Everyone spends time in a chemistry lab.

4) Everyone reads a Faulkner novel. (Because you won’t get through it without guidance, and a group.)


5) Everyone learns to code a computer program.

6) Everyone plays music in a group.

You get the idea: A college degree as proof that you’ve sampled different disciplines, that you understand a little about all of them, that you can express your understanding in words, that this is what prepares you for the workforce.

As for going deep into the arts and letters? Maybe, for most people, that comes later. DePamphilis also teaches literature to retirees through a program called the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, hosted at UMass and more than 100 other universities. Her older students begged her for the class: They saw her chalkboard scratchings in a UMass classroom and wanted to join the dicussion.

They come to class with the benefit of time, enthusiastic and engaged, their pages marked up. Another UMass teacher, who teaches Kafka to retirees, told me those classes are always “an uplifting experience.”

I can understand why: The students care. My parents both take Osher classes in another state. My dad recently read “Moby-Dick,” deeply and perceptively, drawing on his life experiences.

I read “Moby-Dick” too, as a 19-year-old in college, in an English survey course. I was determined to read it all, but as usual, didn’t read quickly enough to keep up with the class discussions. So I finished it months later, in the library, alone — with no paper to write, no life journeys to relate, no one to talk to.

I’ll bet I could fake a conversation about it, even now. But it’s hardly the same.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.