Humanities and Liberal Arts Majors: How useful are they to have in higher ed?

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Summary: A NYTimes article talks about the decline in humanities majors, and discusses the great boons they offer. My question to my readers useful are they in general? As a philosophy major, I sometimes wonder.

BLOT: (19 Jan 2011 - 03:00:11 PM)

Humanities and Liberal Arts Majors: How useful are they to have in higher ed?

In the article "In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth", Patricia Cohen brings in a few people to defend the humanities in higher education, contrasted to the overall decline in people seeking degrees in such fields. The decline in degrees are unsuprising for two reasons: (1) decline in jobs equals a decline in people wanting to go into a field, and (2) there has been a growing trend to hand-wave the humanities away as either pointless or something like. I'm a bit of the weird duck, my brain works fairly well in both physics and philosophy: I think in numbers as well as in art. This has helped me to have both jobs and friends that consider the other half to be the path of insanity, and have occasionally myself tended to prefer one over the other. At the end of most days, though, I consider them both worthy ideas and part of the human spirit.

But when you start talking about spending money, and I mean tuituion levels of money, for a humanities degree, I find myself more and more leaning towards talking people out of it. At least making it conditional or part of an education that includes some non-humanities work. Let's put aside the arguments that any degree is better than no degree and look just at the inherent value of the degree itself. My philosophy degree mostly involved me reading 5-8 books a semester, most of them partially rather than fully, and the sitting in a room with about 20 other people and talking about what we read. Only 4-5 people per classroom were really talkative, so most just sat back and doodled or took in the debate the others had. Then, after a week or two of this, scant ideas about the thing-in-itself would be jotted down on 2-4 sheets of paper and turned in. I can't hate on the books, most of those were classics of the field and several were vaguely life changing. I can't hate on the discussion, besides to say that a small table in the school cafe would have worked just as well. I can hate on the papers, and often do, for all sorts of reasons. Spending 2500 dollars a semester (even assuming scholarships or grants are covering it) to accomplish what could have been done with a library card, a Kindle with some Project Gutenberg downloads, and a few hours a week talking with friends at a coffee shop? I don't know, man...

My physics side involved crunching math to start with, but eventually involved working hands on with lasers and optics systems and various astrophysics themed instruments. Something like seven years later, I don't really remember it, but if I had immediately cashed in on that portion of my degree, I would have been semi-competent in a lab. I had notebooks, training using Fortran on some number crunching BSD machines, and info for logging into some satellite databases to get data from x-ray telescopes in earth orbit. My heart was not in it, not even to the degree that my heart was into making fun of Kant in a company of people who knew what I was talking about, but there was a degree there that could not easily be replicated by checking out books and talking to friends.

Is that fair? We are less than a century into our current diploma system, as I understand it. People used to go to college if they were wealthy and others became apprentices in machine shops and got paid to do what others paid to learn. Both might end up in the same rocket lab buffing out an o-ring and one might be Doctor Rocket while the other was just Mister Rocket, but there did not seem to be the iron gate we have now. The point is, even if you think of physics and engineering and chemistry (God, picture having to buy all your own chemicals in this day in age) as needing the college environment because of the specialty of cost and experience, is it fair to damn those involving book-learning and art-gazing because they can be replicated with talking to friends, checking out books, and finding a good mentor? To be honest, I don't know.

Because the other side of the coin is the fact that it's not merely a money-in, money-out game. If it was all down to MiMo, then the only degrees worthwhile would be legal, medical, networking, and business degrees. Everything else will cost the same, but make you earn less. It's not purely MiMo, then, and in the real world having a degree is now required for a number of things. What do we do to make the humanities more valuable? Charge them less tuition? Make their field more disciplined? Be more up front with what they entail? Restrict the number of students going into it to make it more competetive? Find and design more jobs that allow people to use humanities in ways other than teaching and writing?

What's the vibe you're feeling? What's your take on the value of humanities in higher education as compared to other degrees? About the same? Less? More? The article linked to above goes into the value of humanities to talk about the meaning of events, the ethics of things, and so forth. It talks about how they can be more useful in economic downturns because they have training to put the current events into a larger perspective, be it philosophical or historical. How viable is that, though?

After some consideration, I would not go back and get rid of my philosophy degree, even with the costs associated and the student loans I'm going to be paying back for the next 20 years (though not too much per month). I liked it and it is part of me. Me without it would be more neurotic, less well-rounded, and probably stuck in front of a monochrome monitor looking for quasars and never finding one. Still, the most significant worth I got from it feels incidental to degree itself. I would hate to have to rely on it to get a job, though.

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