so how many humanities scholars do we need?
On this blog, yours truly harps a lot about the benefit of a STEM major and relentlessly pounced on those who seem to believe that humanities makes one a better person than the sciences, especially when they begin saying ridiculous things, such as declaring that China maintains a dictatorship thanks to STEM grads, as if those who study hard sciences lack the ability to understand right form wrong and the difference between free election in China and today’s regime can be reduced to the number of literature and philosophy PhDs. But as some of you have pointed out, repeating this theme sounds as if I’m discarding the humanities altogether for more vocational disciplines or argue to leave them only for the rich, privileged, and well-connected.
And that’s not the case at all because we do need people who are deeply passionate about literature, law, metaphysics, and other topics that fall outside the scientific purview because they contribute greatly to out culture. However, the inconvenient truth is that we need far fewer of them than are currently enrolled in college programs as the number of future scientists, engineers, and those in between dwindles over the long term. Even the refuge of haughty humanities scholars, the Chronicle of Higher Ed, started noticing that we really do need STEM.
Now, the post in question does enocurage more investment in STEM majors while arguing for an overhaul of how colleges train and educate students, promoting the same apprenticeship model of which I’m a big fan, but it touches on the most important yet overlooked aspect of college education in academic circles. Why not stress degrees that yield jobs because that’s how students and parents measure a colleges’ worth?
Why not let certain students skip college altogether if they don’t need it, especially since degrees are very expensive and can easily end up as crippling financial setbacks rather than gateways to careers? While this may be an approach a humanities advocate could consider adding up the price of everything while taking the value of nothing into account, the truth of the matter is that knowledge for the sake of knowledge is terrific, but it will not feed you or pay your rent, and $25,000 to $75,000 worth of debt is a rather steep fee for reading books, writing introspective papers, and just living the life of the mind. And what do you gain from all this? Not much…
In 2009 the United States graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, mathematics, and chemical engineering combined, and more than double the number of visual-and-performing-arts graduates in 1985. There is nothing wrong with the arts, psychology, and journalism, but graduates in these fields have lower wages and are less likely to find work in their fields than graduates in science and math. Moreover, over half of all humanities graduates end up in jobs that don’t require college degrees, and those graduates don’t get a big income boost from having gone to college.
It’s a very seductive idea to just go off and research whatever captures your fancy for four to eight years, but at the end of the day you’re left with two papers; your degree and your bill. And if the former can’t help you pay for the latter or the money for the latter wasn’t already set aside to pay for being able to devote yourself to living in the life of the mind, where do you go from here? You can quote Plato’s Timaeus by heart and tie it into modern neo-paganism and Hermetic occultism by splicing together ideas circulated by the New Age movement since the mid to late 1950s, but aside from being able to publish yet another book on the subject, how will that help when the landlord comes knocking and the creditors start calling for an estimated payment date?
That’s what so many big boosters of humanities disciplines really don’t want to discuss because they don’t want to live in a world where material concerns even momentarily triumph over purely intellectual pursuits. Today’s jobs are based on the idea of degreed professionals doing highly specialized work and a bachelor’s degree is a very pervasive form of screening candidates. Rather than an optional path for those who can afford it, colleges are now a requirement to find a career. Gone are the days when one could go through a training course find work with only a high school diploma and colleges need to look around and adjust to this new reality.