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Tackling the crisis in the humanities

6 mins read

On Monday, in my Senior Colloquium for English Literature majors, we had an extensive conversation about the “fate of the humanities” in academia and in today’s economy. Many of us voiced worries about the jobs and careers we could get after Swarthmore, for instance: “Can you only be an English teacher/professor if you’re an English major?” (The answer is no, by the way.)

“So maybe you become a waiter for a couple years after college,” said one senior. “I’ve been a waiter. Being a waiter isn’t so bad.” Maybe so, although I’m not sure all of us were in agreement with this.

There is definitely a much broader discussion taking place nationwide surrounding the future of humanities taking place, as majors in fields like English have declined. “A humanities degree, all by itself, is unlikely to make you rich,” says a New York Times debate piece by Anthony Carnevale about the decline in undergrad humanities majors overall. “People who opt out of the humanities are most likely making rational economic decisions . . . Compared to the average college graduate, a humanities major earns about 20 percent less after graduation and over a lifetime.”

However, Ben Schmidt of Northeastern University has negated this overall choice of “practical” disciplines over humanities, quoting statistics which show that “As a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, history degrees are up 19 percent from a quarter-century ago; in the same period, the relative share of business degrees fell almost a fifth, and economics is down more than 25 percent.” Furthermore, he writes that “In an economy that’s been particularly punishing to young people, studying English is a perfectly fine choice.”

As young people making choices about what to study and what to do with our lives, we Swatties are definitely part of this discussion. And numbers don’t lie: the number of chemistry majors at Swarthmore has been steadily increasing in the last few years, from seven graduating seniors in 2011 to twelve in 2013. Engineering is one of the most commonly declared majors for entering first years (although that number often decreases). For many of us, it is a question of choosing between something “useful” and something we are good at, or “passionate” about. If you study something lucrative but unenjoyable, does the financial return really matter? What is the worth of pursuing your passion if it gets you nowhere in the world? As a Chemistry and English Literature double major, I suppose the problem has been partway solved for me — although I often have to defend my choice to study the “waitressing major” to people I meet.

“So why are you all humanities majors?” our English professor asked us yesterday during Colloquium.

This is not a simple question, and we had many different answers, but all of us simply enjoyed the discipline of writing and reading literature. Those of us also in the STEM fields felt that the different analytical natures of humanities and sciences complemented each other. And some also felt that studying English Literature teaches us the essential skills of communication, articulation and presentation that are not as well taught in many STEM field courses.

The humanities do have a practical value that is often overlooked, and Swarthmore needs to inform incoming first years of practical applications of humanities and dispel the unfortunate (yet common) notion that the only place for humanities majors is in academia. During my internship this past summer at the U.S. Department of Energy Fuel Cell Technologies Office, in addition to work that required my scientific knowledge, I also performed tasks that required my writing and editing skills. For instance, I revised fact sheets about hydrogen fuel cells and storage, so that the information available on the DOE website would be more understandable and accessible. That experience further convinced me that the skills valued in the humanities are valuable in all other disciplines. If we strictly see humanities and the STEM fields in a binary, we will have a world of people who make uninformed decisions about the scientific community, and a scientific community that loses sight of the people whom science serves.

And practical applications aside, let’s also not forget the original purpose of the humanities, which is to humanize us. Humanities bring new light to otherwise mundane human experiences. In the computer age and the growing ubiquity of technology, we will need the humanities more than ever to remind us what we live for. “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute,” English teacher John Keating tells his students, in the film Dead Poets Society, “We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering — these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.”

The Phoenix