Against Utility

There is something of a cottage industry in publishing tracts on the “crisis in the humanities,” usually as a smaller but more fervent sub-crisis of the “decline of higher education.” Often in apocalyptic tones and always accompanied by disturbing charts – oh, those charts! – these essays and books point to the ascendance of corporate values in the governance and teaching of institutions of higher learning, ideals that devalue and ultimately displace traditional teaching in the humanities. Enrollments of English and history majors decline as students look to paths that lead more directly to post-graduate employment. This becomes especially true, as David Brooks points out, during periods of economic turmoil (like, you know, now). Lower demand for humanistic education leads to budget stresses in humanities departments, stresses inevitably rectified by swelling the numbers of contingent faculty and the cheap labor of graduate students. As any newly-minted humanities PhD can tell you, the greatest casualty of this crisis is career opportunity for young humanists.

Stepping into the debate about proper responses to the crisis in the humanities are Paul Jay and Gerald Graff, with a new essay on Inside Higher Ed entitled “The Fear of Being Useful.” Jay and Graff argue that the humanities need a new defense, one that does not view utility and practical applications as anathema to the humanistic spirit.

They begin by dividing the defenders of the humanities into two camps: the traditionalists (“the humanities are worthwhile for their own sake”) and the revisionists (“practically applying the humanities is to sell out to dominant ideologies”). They find both Martha Nussbaum’s defense of the university as the last refuge of democratic values and Frank Donoghue’s prediction of the death of the humanities by creeping corporatization out-of-step with a developing appreciation of humanistic study by those outside the ivory tower. “Ironically,” they write, “these pessimistic assessments are appearing at the very moment when many employers outside academe are recognizing the practical value of humanities training.” They point to Google’s claim to be hiring four to five thousand humanities graduates in the coming years; the hiring practices at State Farm insurance that value critical reading and writing competency; statistics indicating as many as 40% of Fortune 500 CEOs have humanities bachelor’s degrees; and the experience of Damon Horowitz, a Google executive who returned to academe to get a philosophy doctorate to better define “thought” for his artificial intelligence projects.

What these anecdotes tell us, Jay and Graff argue, is that the marketplace values the skills humanistic education fosters. Among the “useful skills” peculiar to humanities are “learning to read carfeully and write concisely… to analyze and make arguments in imaginative ways, to confront ambiguity, and to reflect skeptically about received truths.” These skills, they argue, “are increasingly sought for” by the gatekeepers of employment in an information economy. Moreover, the humanist’s capacity for empathy – the ability to understand the situation of an other – is highly valuable in a globally integrated culture and market.

The consequence of this desirability, Jay and Graff argue, ought not be a retrenchment into outmoded ideas about the fundamental non-utility of the humanities (a view they rightly ascribe to Stanley Fish, among others) but to a “critical vocationalism” that reorients humanities and liberal arts education to the application of skills to the non-academic world. A new understanding of the humanities requires “an attitude that is receptive to taking advantage of opportunities in the private and public sectors for humanities graduates that enable those graduates to apply their training in meaningful and satisfying ways.” They continue, “We believe such opportunities do exist.” As examples of the potential of this new orientation, they point to BYU’s “Humanities+” undergraduate program and the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities at U-Chicago. Both seek to situate the humanities at the intersection of the credentializing and humanizing mandates of higher education. They marry the skills which the humanities foster with the expectations and realities of the global job market. At the doctoral level, Jay and Graff bemoan the loss of programs like “The Humanities at Work,” a Woodrow Wilson Foundation project that sought to expand the career opportunities of humanities PhDs beyond academe. Apparently, they believe this kind of program (which died in the 1990s) (correction: “The Humanities at Work” continued to be funded through 2006.) ought to be resuscitated, either as an actual program or a new model for graduate education. Regarding the latter possibility, the authors find great potential in the emerging field of the digital humanities, a catch-all term for the intersection of textual studies and digital technologies. In the digital humanities, they seem to hope, lies a new way of conceiving the practical applications of humanistic education.

The greatest virtue of Jay and Graff’s contribution to this ongoing discussion, I believe, is its emphasis on the consequences of humanistic study. I am similarly unpersuaded by the traditionalists’ Romantic notions of the self-evident value of a humanities education. Such arguments are not only untenable in the modern higher education system, they do not resonate with students reared in a utilitarian culture obsessed with cause-and-effect thinking. No one ever asks “What can I know with this?” it’s “What can I do with this?” To that end, the authors’ emphasis on doing (or applying) is crucial to any new defense of the humanities attuned to the contemporary moment. We must assert the consequences of humanistic study if we are to be taken seriously. I share the conviction that the benefits of such an education begin as skills transferable to the professional environment, whether academic or otherwise. We should do more to focus our teaching on the development of skills in reading, writing, analysis, and argumentation. By most measures, we already do this pretty well. The headlines that accompanied the publication of Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift last year should have been an opportunity to puff our collective chests (this headline is probably my favorite). Our students are learning to master the skills we set out to teach them. That’s more than many areas of study can say. If nothing else, Jay and Graff give us license to say, “Not only are we teaching students valuable skills, we do a better job of teaching than most other departments.” That’s a pretty strong combination of selling points.

This is the point where I have to mention that I’ve known Paul Jay since 2005. I consider him a colleague, mentor, and friend. Moreover, Gerald Graff is someone I’ve admired from a distance for quite some time. His institutional history Professing Literature has shaped my understanding of my profession and my personal expectations of it. Both are men I cannot laud sufficiently.

That being said, I do not think I can share the optimistic view of the future of the humanities they envision as the outcome of this new thinking. I think this new defense of humanistic education ought more rightly to be labeled the old defense of liberal arts education. Liberal arts colleges have been extolling the professional benefits of a reading-and-writing-first curriculum for decades now. There is no indication that I can find that they’ve had any more or less success in defending their approach from corporate creep than have their big sister institutions. Perhaps the resilience of liberal arts education ought to be cause for optimism among humanities scholars, but survival is a lower bar than Jay and Graff set for the future of their disciplines.

A key issue with the critical vocationalism the authors’ advocate is that it assumes the beneficence of the gatekeepers of employment. By this I mean, they assume that Google and State Farm’s executives are being honest in their assertions that they value the skills of humanities graduates as new employees. If I can momentarily commit the humanist’s greatest sin, valuing quanta, the numbers don’t bear out the claims associated with this anecdotal evidence. The day before Jay and Graff’s essay appeared on Inside Higher Ed, a more pessimistic (at least for humanists) note appeared on The Chronicle’s website. “Unemployment Varies by College Major, Study Finds,” points out that humanities and liberal arts grads face much higher unemployment rates than do their vocationally trained counterparts in engineering or nursing (In other news: Duh!). Moreover, this relative unemployability is not confined to the recent graduates covered in the Chronicle article. The same study, glossed here by the Times Economix blog (yay, charts!), shows humanities and liberal arts majors continue to experience higher rates of unemployment by mid-career. If there is a humanities hiring boom associated with the information economy, it has yet to filter down to bachelor’s degree holders.

Really, this should not be a surprise. The skills Jay and Graff, as well as the corporate officers they quote, find valuable in the contemporary work world are “good-enough” skills, not skills that require mastery to be useful. The essay quotes David Brooks claiming, “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.” There is certainly truth in what Brooks is saying. I see two issues, however. First, the skills he describes (crucial to the future of work, Jay and Graff argue) may be the specialty of the humanities, but there is no indication that being able to read or write really well, the ideal goal of humanities education, is especially important. Reading and discerning may be rare talents, but being exceptionally skilled at them is no greater advantage, I suspect. A business major who can passably read both a memo and a financial statement is more marketable than an English major who can read a memo really thoroughly. This corresponds to a second issue with Brooks’s formulation: no one is getting hired based on their ability to “write a clear and concise memo.” Written communication is, at best, a second-order function of virtually all employment. You may be able to write a concise memo, but you also need to know what you’re writing about; the skill complements the knowledge, not the other way around. This is why job listings begin by listing competencies and necessary knowledge before describing required and preferred skills.

Even if the above paragraphs are wrong and there is increasing demand for the kind and degree of skills humanities graduates have mastered that isn’t yet showing up in the data, I remain pessimistic about the future of the humanities in one key sense. It is a sense, I believe, that Jay and Graff do not address. Their emphasis on the marketability and transferability of the skills earned studying the humanities elides the core values that animate the desire to study such subjects. They talk at length about humanistic skills without addressing the status of humanistic values. They do concede at one point, “We also recognize that the interests of the corporate world and the marketplace often clash with the values of the humanities,” but then go on to say that what matters to the future of the humanities is asserting that both the corporate world and the humanities require similar skill sets. This, to my mind, is a fundamental misrepresentation of the meaning of the humanities. We should not divorce the reading skills developed studying Plato from the values fostered by the same act. To do so simply because the former are marketable while the latter are threatening is to do a great injustice to the humanistic tradition. As professors and committed defenders of that tradition, I am sure that is not what Jay and Graff would like to be doing. Nonetheless, this is where I see the trajectory they trace heading. To take an example they cite: I do not doubt Google is hiring thousands of humanities graduates – in linguistics, foreign languages, history, and literature – to develop and engineer the plain-language software of the future. What they are not doing is hiring those same graduates to challenge the company’s problematic treatment of users’ private data or its manipulation of search algorithms to gain access to networks in undemocratic states – both of which ought to be seen as affronts to humanistic principles. Yet Google is unlikely to change either, no matter how many humanities grads they hire. They are hiring the skills; they don’t want the ideals. If the humanities of the future is without humanistic values, I do not see how this is something to celebrate.

What would I prefer? What sort of defense of the humanities do I want? What’s a more persuasive case for a path to the future of the humanities? I think it has three parts:

1) First, I’d like to see a more integrated vision of humanistic values to accompany the marketability of humanists’ skills. We can and should do more to place the development of skills at the center of humanistic education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels (regarding the latter, the authors have, along with Gregory Jay, just launched, an online clearinghouse for information on the future of humanities). This is, if nothing else, a necessary response to the credentializing demands of higher education. Our students must leave school able to do something well. However, if this shift displaces humanistic values, we’ve severely downgraded our own stock. At the pedagogical level, I’d like to see more professors affirm the importance of the humanist tradition, an idea that has been diluted almost out of existence by poststructural obsessions with difference-for-difference’s sake. We need not return to the problematic Arnoldian ideas of the best that can be read to affirm the value of reading great texts (by whatever combination of standards that can be determined). We should state unapologetically that reading in the humanist tradition fosters a habit of mind as well as a set of skills, and that this habit of mind proceeds from different premises than does the logic of the market. The humanities and the market need not be at odds, but they need not work toward insincere rapprochement, either. We should work to integrate values and skills so that humanities students who go into the working world carry both with them.

2) Second, I believe strongly that professors must agitate for greater numbers of tenure-track or tenure-lite faculty positions. Obviously, this runs counter to the trend of the last forty-plus years. Yet this gets at the paradox of the “crisis in the humanities” – essays like this one assure us that the skills of humanists are in greater demand while, at the same time, universities who employ their authors are hiring fewer and fewer humanists into the most respected positions on campus. Why would young humanists believe their skills are valued when the institution telling them so doesn’t seem to value them? If we are going to defend the humanities and ensure for them a future, we have to begin close to home. Jay and Graff recognize this need and state that their defense is not meant to supersede efforts on campus. However, until a future of the humanities is secured in academe, it’s hard to imagine its future “in the wild” will be more secure. How can this happen? One way – an old idea that is always as rhetorically popular as it is practically impossible – is to increase the teaching responsibilities of tenure-line faculty. Doing so validates the worth of tenured faculty to students and their families (who, in the end, really decide the future of academe) while decreasing the reliance on an underfunded contingent labor market. This is one area where I think Jay and Graff’s optimism regarding the digital humanities intersects with my interests. If nothing else, the digital humanities should integrate and accelerate the processes of research, writing, and publication. If that sphere of the profession is streamlined, there is little reason tenured faculty cannot be asked to take on increased teaching loads. If the humanities are going to live on in the classroom, they’re going to need qualified stewards.

3) Third, I believe we need a more complete picture of the effects and consequences of humanistic education. Jay and Graff do well to point out the development of particular skills as one consequence – one they believe will continue to justify the humanities. My sense, I hope I have made clear by now, is that this is a partial picture. I think we must complete it by affirming consequences outside the workplace as well as within it. This is not, I want to assert, to reject the logic of utility. We need not fear being useful, but we must be careful about how we are used. If I am against utility, it is a specific idea of utility I oppose – not the application of skills to profitable ends but the reduction of human motive and agency to financial incentives alone. Too often, this is where the logic of utility or usefulness leads. It also, to my mind, is a view incompatible with humanistic values. Humanists should embrace the possibility to be useful and efficacious in the world (no matter what Fish says), but we cannot understand that purely in the terms of the workplace, the market, or the more insidiously reductive ideas of human agency. Instead, we should seek to understand how the humanities are manifested in spheres of influence without as well as within the world of work. For example, we can claim, controversially but not without evidence, that humanities graduates are better, more informed citizens. This is not an accident; the ideals of citizenship are at the core of humanistic values. This, also, is not an unimportant set of concerns for our students. The popularity of the Stewart/Colbert bloc and the online presence of political candidates as different as Barack Obama and Ron Paul indicate that young people are looking for new models of citizenship. This is terrain where the humanities can be efficacious. I would like to see those who care about the future of the humanities continue to assert their consequentiality but with greater attention to their usefulness in the larger world as well as in the workplace.

The authors conclude with a claim common to this genre, that the world needs humanities students now more than ever. In a world of always-immanent global conflict, we need thinkers trained in empathy dominating the public sector. In a world of short-sighted but far-reaching economic calamity, we need thinkers trained to value ethical considerations working for financial and corporate power brokers. Sell the world on our skills, Jay and Graff argue, and our values will transform it. Count me among the skeptics that humanistic values can survive the harsh landing of entering the world of work, even if humanistic skills can. I’m reminded of one of William Pannapacker’s many articles on the slow death of graduate education in the humanities. He says of applying to graduate school, “Undergraduate humanities majors need to know that they have other options. There are jobs out there for smart, creative people that don’t expect you to sell your soul.”

My response: No there aren’t. At least I doubt it. But I’d like to be wrong.

25. January 2018 by cw
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