I came across this interesting article about how the fact that arts and humanities students land up serving coffees should really be seen as a failure of our society and economy to value their skills well. It also offers some prescriptions for rectifying the situation.
The case made in the article is that the arts and humanities offer us guidelines for how to live our lives, and in that sense, may be thought of as a replacement for religions. For instance, literature teaches us how to deal with life and death, and music teaches us how to deal with love and relationships. I am reminded of this wonderful scene from Dead Poets Society where Prof John Keating (played by Robin Williams) makes essentially the same point, but more eloquently.
If we accept that the works of arts and literature are valuable, then how do we explain the unemployment and underemployment of the graduates who have spent years analyzing and mastering them? One diagnosis is that the economy does not value this pursuit as highly as it should; i.e. it is a case of market failure. Another possibility is that the students are not taught how to transfer their knowledge of the works and the themes laid out therein to the commercial realities of the economy. In either case, what is warranted is a redesign of the curriculum, and possibly even a reorganization of the schools and departments, to emphasize both the potential value of these pursuits and how to unleash it. An interesting excerpt from the original article:
One would still study novels, histories, plays, psychoanalysis and paintings, but one would do so for explicitly therapeutic ends. So Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary would be assigned in a course on ‘How to manage the tensions of marriage’ instead of belonging in a course on ‘Trends in nineteenth-century fiction’, just as the works of Epicurus and Seneca would appear in a course on ‘How to Die’ rather than in one on ‘Hellenistic philosophy’.
That was a refreshing perspective on this dilemma. The question that is left unanswered, however, is how the insights from these works can be brought into the mainstream consciousness. How they can be “commercialized”, if you will. Should we expect to see legions of arts school graduates write self-help books?
Continue reading In Defense of Humanities. Or is it?