how to save the humanities

There’s been a justifiable sense of dread within the humanities. The recession has devastated the academic job market in a field that was already experiencing profound problems. Given that I admire the arts, I offer the following constructive solutions:

  1. Slash doctoral programs: Clearly, the persistent problem is a massive over supply of PhD’s in the humanities. As many folks point out, graduate programs are great at producing ABD’s who are cheap teachers. The down side is that you have an army of people that the system can’t take when they graduate.  Since the jobs are few, training programs should be small.
  2. Increase masters programs: If we slash PhD programs, who will teach the masses? This is pretty easy – massively increase the MA programs. If people want to take an extra year or two learn some topic and “try out” academic life, why should we stop them? When they enter, give them a crash course in teaching, give them a section, and reduce their tuition. At age 23, spending an extra year doing intro Spanish or Writing I isn’t a big deal. No need to have the 32 year old ABD doing that stuff. If you are worried about quality, have an exam before they can teach. The other cool thing about the expanded MA is that we give lots of people a chance, but we cut them off quickly and don’t drag them out for years. You don’t have an army of disgruntled & unemployed research specialists.
  3. Reclaim the Canon: Professional prestige is based on resources. What’s the one thing that the humanities is really, really good at and that no one else really does? The canon- and it should be what the humanities pushes on undergrads. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not of the view that great literature ended in 1850 and was only produced by dead white dudes.  Rather, I’m making an argument about comparative advantage. The humanities programs should be about thinking about the best culture we have produced. They should ask what is valuable about new culture. While deconstructing Star Trek can be fun, it should be kept in the electives and at professional conferences.  Undergraduate education is the public face of the humanities. It should embody the best we have to offer. Therefore, humanities programs should require or emphasize courses focusing on the best in the arts. You’ll get more respect that way.

These suggestions aren’t limited to the humanities. Rather, any field that has a weak non-academic market could be helped these recommendations (e.g., political theory): cut advanced training, get cheap labor in ways other than PhD programs, and focus on what’s absolutely vital. A world were training is linked to markets but justified by value is better than a world were people are trained for non-existent jobs and their work is justified on academic fashion.


Written by fabiorojas

January 24, 2010 at 12:54 am

11 Responses

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  1. Louis Menand, in his latest book “The Marketplace of Ideas,” reiterates the point that professional doctorates take 3-4 years, science doctorates 4-5 years, and humanities doctorates take 8-9 years…so modify the training and cut the time-to-degree.

    I do agree with your concluding remark about grad students being trained for non-existent jobs.



    January 24, 2010 at 3:00 am

  2. When asked what good is a humanities education, Randy LaHoite, department chair at Washtenaw Community College, replied, “What job do you want to have 20 years from now?”

    Granted that humanities is a subset of the liberal arts and a complete liberal arts education includes mathematics and science, the fact remains that whether you are “trained” for culinary arts or MRI, the most useful education remains the most general. Specific skills can be added. Without a context that enables the identification of standards of value, you have no way to choose.

    In criminal justice, textbook writing machine Ka”ren Hess, holds two doctorates: one in English, the other in criminology.

    One earns a doctorate by delivering original work beyond the level of a master. The explosion in PhDs granted may be a consequence of the increase in intelligence over the past two generations.


    Michael E. Marotta

    January 24, 2010 at 4:07 pm

  3. Great Post!



    January 24, 2010 at 7:12 pm

  4. I could be wrong, but I think the increased time-to-degree is an effect of the bad job market. The solution isn’t regulating time to degree, but rather changing the job market. You need to stay in grad school longer to write the dissertation and get the cred that succeeds in the incredibly tight job markets.

    The third argument, about the canon, is cranky and uncomprehending of the reasons why the humanities no longer teach one (to the extent they don’t– they largely still do). You’ve essentially recommended that the humanities, with perfect cynicism, return to teaching in a way they feel they’ve learnt is not only theoretically unjustifiable but also politically and culturally pernicious. Thats not going to happen, nor should it.


    Adam Leeds

    January 25, 2010 at 12:02 am

  5. Adam:

    1. I used to think so, but now that I’ve been on the faculty, I’ve noticed that faster students do perfectly well. I don’t have data on this point, but my sense is lengthy time to degree really has to do with faculty and students not having any penalties for taking too long. Look at Harvard: once they had penalties for long time to degree, mysteriously, PhD’s became shorter and people got jobs.

    2. People say that the canon is absurd, but I don’t think so. Every english department teaches shakespeare, melville, and milton. Hawthorne never got banished. In other words, people argue against canon, but they still teach one. In a modern multicultural age, we just have an expanded canon. We don’t need to revert to the 1920s, but I think the humanities isn’t gaining any credibility by denying canon, however loosely defined.



    January 25, 2010 at 12:15 am

  6. […] Rojas,”how to save the humanities,”, 24 January 2010.An interesting piece, if a tad condescending and a bit fuzzy […]


  7. I am not sure these suggestions really “save” the humanities because they don’t really answer the question most undergraduates have: can I get a job with this? While I know that there is a major crisis for Ph.D’s in the humanities, it seems like the number of humanities undergraduates is decereasing and those they do graduate with humanities degrees struggle to find their first job. To “save’ the humanities, it seems like we need to help humanities undergraduates (and graduate students too) a clear path into a middle-class job.


    Rich Schur

    January 26, 2010 at 3:41 am

  8. (a master of arts in literature between space shuttle flights)
EDUCATION: … received a bachelor of science degree in mathematics and statistics from Syracuse University in 1958, a master of business administration degree in operations analysis and computer programming from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1959, a bachelor of arts degree in chemistry from Marietta College in 1960, a doctorate in medicine from Columbia University in 1964, a master of science in physiology and biophysics from the University of Kentucky in 1966, and a master of arts in literature from the University of Houston in 1987. … Dr. Musgrave was selected as a scientist-astronaut by NASA in August 1967. … He was a mission specialist on STS-6 in 1983, STS-51F/Spacelab-2 in 1985, STS-33 in 1989 and STS-44 in 1991, was the payload commander on STS-61 in 1993, and a mission specialist on STS-80 in 1996.

    Another Type-A with two doctorates:
    Dr. Robert Willett received his S.B. in physics from M.I.T. in 1979, his M.D. from the University of California, San Fransciso in 1983, and his Ph.D. in physics from M.I.T. in 1988. From 1989 to 1990 he was a post-doctoral member of technical staff at Bell Laboratories, and he has remained as a member of technical staff at Bell Labs, now part of Lucent Technologies.


    Michael E. Marotta

    January 28, 2010 at 5:51 pm

  9. I am transitioning from another career into social psychology. I’ve applied to PhD programs in both Psychology and Sociology departments. Ultimately, I want to work in academia. I’ve looked at the starting salaries for professors in both sociology departments and psychology departments. Sociology professors make a great deal less. What’s up with that? Is psychology considered to be a “science” doctorate, whereas sociology is a “humanities” one? And what decisions can I make now that will help me get a job later? I.e., do I have to go to the highest ranked program that I get into? How much do rankings matter in the humanities? Thanks!



    February 14, 2010 at 9:45 pm

  10. Tamden: Sociology is not considered a humanities discipline, but it is considered “softer” than economics and psychology. I’m not an expert here, but psychologists probably get more salary because they tend to bring more grants and have a stronger external market. They tend to have a stronger presence in professional schools, so that drives up salaries as well. If you want my opinion on jobs and grad school, please click “grad skool rulz” on the right hand side of the orgtheory website. Thanks for reading.



    February 14, 2010 at 10:04 pm

  11. Hmm…You bring tons of legitimate points.
    I enjoy your thinkingand you haved got one more weekly reader.

    take it easy


    Shane Bohlen

    November 4, 2010 at 2:37 am

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