New Approach to Defending the Value of the Humanities

In a recent piece in Inside Higher Ed, professors Paul Jay and Gerald Graff review some of the most recent contributions to the conventional wisdom on the current crisis in the humanities, outlining the divide between “traditionalists” and “revisionists,” both of which argue that “the humanities should resist our culture’s increasing fixation on a practical, utilitarian education.” Jay and Graff, however, emphasize that such defensive maneuvers, ironically enough, are coming at a time in which many employers in the business world are beginning to recognize the practical value of an education in the humanities. Gone are the days, the authors write, “when industrialists like Andrew Carnegie dismissed such an education as ‘literally, worthless;'” today, “changes in the global economy, the culture, and the humanities themselves since Carnegie’s day … have given many corporate leaders a dramatically more favorable view of the humanities’ usefulness.” In light of such changes, the authors point to a few examples of humanities programs, like BYU’s Humanities+ and the University of Chicago’s Master of Arts Program in the Humanities, that have embraced connections with the business and corporate world. Such programs extoll both the practical and the self-evident virtues of the humanities, and are evidence of what Jay and Graff call a “critical vocationalism, an attitude that is receptive to taking advantage of opportunities in the private and public sectors for humanities graduates that enable those graduates to apply their training in meaningful and satisfying ways.”

Jay and Graff also point to the digital humanities as evidence of “the concrete value of … humanities education” and emphasize how the digital humanities marks the merging of skills from two formerly very different fields. Ultimately, what we see in fields like the digital humanities, the authors maintain, is not just “how old 20th-century divisions between science and the humanities are breaking down,” but also how “this either/or way of thinking about the humanities – either they exist solely for their own sake or they have no justification at all – is a trap that leaves humanists unable to argue for the value of their work in terms of the practical skills it teaches.” For Jay and Graff, such a trap evades the real issue at stake: the importance of emphasizing – to students, faculty members, and employers alike – that “to take advantage of the vocational potential of humanities study as we propose is not to sell out to the corporate world, but to bring the critical perspective of the humanities into that world.”

Read more in Inside Higher Ed.

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