Defending the Humanities: Practical Value

Defending the Humanities: Practical Value

Education November 14, 2013 / By Mike LaBossiere
Defending the Humanities: Practical Value
SYNOPSIS

A defense of the humanities on the grounds of practical value.

In a previous essay, I noted the concern that the humanities are in decline in the academy. In this essay I will argue in defense of the practical value of the humanities.

Honesty compels me to admit that some of the problems faced by the humanities are self-inflicted. First, humanities faculty have generally not done a very good job “selling” the practical value of the humanities to students, parents, politicians, and society as a whole. Part of this might be the result of the notion that humanities faculty should not stoop to selling their beloved disciplines like a pimp sells his hookers. My view is that the practical value of the humanities can be shown without descending to the level of what would amount to intellectual prostitution.

Second, some humanities faculty devote considerable time to saying and writing ridiculous things about absurd matters as well as creating pointless academic problems whose solutions would achieve nothing of significance. These absurdities infest the professional journals and abound at the professional conferences—thus perhaps making it a mercy that the general public studiously ignores these venues. Those who become masters of both self-promotion and empty absurdities are often the most lauded of faculty—enjoying excellent compensation, modest workloads, and considerable attention. This enables critics of the humanities a ready stock of easy targets when they wish to argue for the uselessness of the humanities. Having endured finely nuanced deconstructions of cybernetic genders in fictional spaces, I have considerable sympathy for their disdain. However, I will endeavor to show that this fluffy absurdity is not all there is to the humanities and that there is actual practical value to the disciplines of the humanities.

Before entering into my defense of the humanities, I must first engage in a brief discussion of practical value. After all, to show that the humanities have practical value requires having a concept of practical value. There is also the matter of the often overlooked concern about why a specific view of practical value should be accepted as the proper measure of value.

Interestingly enough, defining practical value and arguing why a specific view of practical value should be accepted are both subjects that fall solidly within the humanities, specifically my discipline of philosophy. While some will obviously be tempted to go with their own view of practical value because it is “obvious”, this would be to engage in the fallacy of begging the question—that is, assuming as true what actually needs to be proven. Thus, one obvious practical value of the humanities is that it is needed to sort out the very nature of practical value and to determine which view of practical value that should be accepted.

For the sake of the discussion and brevity, I will stick with a fairly simple view of practical value that is popular in certain circles. The basic idea is that the practical value of a major is its economic value. Put a bit crudely, this can be considered in terms of how effectively job fillers are created for the jobs created by the job creators. The general measures of value would thus involve employment rates and salaries.

One common stereotype is that those majoring in the humanities are doomed to unemployment or, at best, poor salaries. Anecdotes (and jokes) do abound about people who got a degree in a humanities discipline and ended up doomed. However, as any philosophy major should know, an appeal to anecdotal evidence is a fallacy. What is needed is not anecdotes but statistical data.  Conveniently enough, Georgetown University released a detailed report on this matter.

Based on the usual stereotypes and common anecdotes, one would expect theatre majors, literature majors and philosophy majors to have very high unemployment rates as recent college graduates. Interestingly, theatre majors have an unemployment rate of 6.4%, literature majors are at 9.8% and philosophy majors are at 9.5% (unemployment rates are significantly lower for experience degree holders). Interestingly, the information systems (14.7%) and architecture (12.8%) have the highest unemployment rates. Computer science (8.7%) and accounting (8.8%) are fairly close to the humanities. Those doing best are elementary education majors and (5%) and nursing majors (4.8%).

Taking employment as being a measure of practical value, these statistics show that humanities degrees have practical value. After all, the employment rates for those with humanities degrees are competitive with non-humanities degrees.

In terms of compensation, the humanities fields generally offer less salary than some other fields. However, the average income of a college graduate in the humanities considerably exceeds that of the average income of a high school graduate. Thus, by this measure of practical value the humanities do have practical value. Thus, when people ask me what someone can do with a humanities degree, my cynical (but truthful) answer is “get a job and get a paycheck.” Some people get some very good jobs and some even become famous.

In addition to the concern about the practical value of a humanities there is also concern about the value of humanities classes—especially those that students are “forced” to take. While schools do vary, it is common for universities to have a humanities requirement and various non-humanities majors often require classes in the humanities. For example, the Florida public university system requires students to take two classes in the humanities. As another example, many of the students in my Critical Inquiry, Ethics, Aesthetics and Introduction to Philosophy classes have to take these classes for their non-humanities major.

It could be argued that “forcing” students to take humanities classes is a waste of student time and money (especially given that tuition is at an all-time high and graduation rates are still depressingly low) because such classes have no practical value to the students. That is, these classes do not contribute provide practical skills that would have a practical payoff. As with the humanities majors, it will be assumed that practical value in this case is a matter of economics.

Some humanities classes do have clear and general practical value. Obvious examples include the basic English classes (writing skills are uniformly useful), critical thinking classes (which is all the rage today), and logic.

Other humanities classes have practical value that does depend on the context. For example, those intending to be involved in overseas business can benefit from humanities classes covering these nations. This relative value is not unique to the humanities. For example, a class in biochemistry will not be particularly useful to someone who plans to manage a company that develops game apps for iPads, but it would be unreasonable to dismiss the class as useless simply because it is useless to some people.

Since the practical value of a class can be relative it is well worth considering whether or not a specific class has practical value for a specific major or student. As such, I would not claim that all humanities classes have practical value to all majors and all students. I would also not claim that all science or math classes have practical value to all majors and all students. However, the mere fact that a specific class does not have practical value to some students or some majors does not entail that it has no practical value.

As a final point, there is some concern that people should be reluctant to make an appeal to the practical when defending the value of the humanities. After all, this would seem to concede too much to those who regard themselves as opponents to the humanities. Rather, it could be contended, the defenders of the humanities should avail themselves of more traditional appeals to the inherent value of the humanities.

There is some merit to this concern and appealing to the practical does run the risk of handing a considerable advantage to those who wish to diminish or dispose of the humanities. However, I would contend that the humanities can be defended on practical grounds without abandoning the more traditional arguments in its favor. In the next essay in this series I will endeavor to argue for the value of the humanities on non-practical (that is, non-economic) grounds.

 

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