Oh, the Humanities

Posted in Learning, Rant

For some fields and majors, universities serve as little more than an expensive – both in terms of time and money – confirmation of employability in modern times. The educational curricula which mattered to the economy has always been within grad schools that built coursework around accreditation in a particular field (e.g., the law schools, the med. schools, etc.), or the STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math) majors[1].

All this talk of doctorates and hard sciences has apparently taken its toil on the humanities. Y’know, the majors we make fun of for being feeder schools to Starbucks and McDonalds.

From the classical definition, higher education really is encapsulated by the teachings in the humanities. They were about building and honing tools for continual learning, exploring literature and philosophy of our forebears and capturing those intellectual insights which will render busy the next generation of thinkers. Universities ensured majors and studies which allowed for this kind of exploration and contemplation of the world; at Berkeley, the biggest college makes this association explicit with its name, the College of Letters and Science.

In the past two decades, the value of a college degree has eroded to that of a minimum requirement to most jobs, and the market has squeezed out work that did not have obvious short-term value. The demand for practical majors shot up, and well, colleges saw and took the opportunity to charge more[2] while being more selective. The net effect is the same, however: students and their parents are forced to borrow more money to attend school, and they’re realizing that while rounding out one’s character is a worthwhile cause, the economics of losing a decade to pay off student loans don’t make much sense.

Given that our current unemployment situation has hit college grads disproportionately, the additional burden of a hunk of debt that’ll be deferred with 7% interest for years is not a pleasant way to start a life of work. Humanities are becoming lost not because they aren’t important, but because universities and the market have priced them out of reach of all but the most privileged.

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)

  1. And there’s always the debate about whether we are producing enough STEM graduates to hold off losing our technological edge. Whether there is actually a crisis is murky, though; the latest arguments against and the subsequent rebuttal land us somewhere back in neutral “we don’t really know” territory.
  2. Granted, there is some evidence that it’s not just that tuition is being jacked up, but that state governments are pulling back from subsidizing higher education, and the difference is made up by the students in the form of grants and loans.