As I suggested in my last post on the demise of Borders, book lovers have lived in an eternal tension between the transcendent ideals their reading often fosters and the commercial realities upon which widespread literacy has depended. The same tension is broadly evident in the Humanities response to professional programs or just more broadly the question of career preparation. We are not wrong to say that an education in history or English is much more than career preparation; nor are we wrong to insist that a college education has to be about much more than pre-professional training. (Not least because most college graduates end up doing things a long distance from their original preparation, and we ought to see that humanities in combination with other knowledges in arts and sciences is at least as good at preparing students for the twists and turns of their eventual career, and perhaps even better, than fields focused on narrower practical preparations
However we are absolutely wrong to assume that questions of career are extraneous or ought to be secondary to our students or our thinking about how we approach curricula.
Daniel Everett, dean of Arts and sciences at Bentley University offers a provocative refection on the need to integrate humanities in to professional education. According to Everett
“Programs that take in students without proper concern for their future or provision for post-graduate opportunities — how they can use what they have learned in meaningful work — need to think about the ethics of their situation. Students no longer come mainly from the leisured classes that were prominent at the founding of higher education. Today they need to find gainful employment in which to apply all the substantive things they learn in college. Majors that give no thought to that small detail seem to assume that since the humanities are good for you, the financial commitment and apprenticeship between student and teacher is fully justified. But in these cases, the numbers of students benefit the faculty and particular programs arguably more than they benefit the students themselves. This is a Ponzi scheme. Q.E.D.”
These are harsh words, but worth considering. I tend to not like Bentley’s particular solutions to the degree that they reduce the humanities to an enriching complement to the important business of, well, business. However, I do think we need to think of new ways of creating our majors that will prepare students for the realities of 21st century employment. Majors that allowed for concentrations in digital humanities would prepare students to engage the changing nature of our disciplines while also gaining technical skills that could serve them well in business. New joint programs with the sciences like those found in medical humanities programs could prepare students in new ways for work in the health care industry. Everett warns of what may happen of humanities programs don’t creatively remake themselves to meet the changing needs of our contemporary world:
“If, like me, you believe that the humanities do have problems to solve, I hope you agree that they are not going to be solved by lamenting the change in culture and exhorting folks to get back on course. That’s like holding your finger up to stop a tidal wave. Thinking like this could mean that new buildings dedicated to the humanities will wind up as mausoleums for the mighty dead rather than as centers of engagement with modern culture and the building of futures in contemporary society.”
Again, I don’t like all of the particular responses Everett has advocated, but I do agree that there is a problem to be addressed that continued proclamations about transferable skills is unlikely to solve. What is sometimes called the applied humanities may be a way of riding the wave rather than being drowned by it.