Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man

In Defense of Humanities. Or is it?

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?

A related question is what the “optimal” proportion of humanities graduates in our population might be. All of the above makes a strong argument for a broad-based education for all graduates. Students of STEM fields should seek to gain these insights, if not to improve their career prospects then at least to live a more fulfilled life. However, that says nothing about what proportion of students should focus entirely on the humanities and arts. The argument above, that the market is mispricing their skills, should imply that we see far too few such graduates. But their large-scale unemployment and underemployment indicates that the price signals are not being sufficiently well factored into the decisions made by students about their majors. I realize these are somewhat contradictory points of view and not entirely motivated with empirical data, but the reasoning does seem plausible.

Consider the fact that in some STEM fields, the graduate student population is dominated by international students, for instance, as high as 70% in electrical engineering. There is also some data to show that a PhD (and presumably a Masters degree) in STEM fields have a lower rate of unemployment and higher salaries, at least in the US. It is not clear whether this compensates for the opportunity cost for the extra years spent in school rather than in the workforce. But taken together, the data does seem to suggest that there is a demand for advanced STEM graduates and researchers which is not being met by US students. Of course, there is ample data to show that STEM graduates, even with just a Bachelor’s degree, earn a lot more than humanities graduates.

I find it hard to reconcile these facts: why are so many students deciding to major in the humanities when their job prospects are not as bright as the in-demand STEM fields? Why are so few (US) STEM field graduates deciding to pursue more advanced degrees?

I’ll conclude with this wonderful quote of John Adams taken from this article.

In May 1780, while away in France, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail expressing his hopes for the progress of the American experiment. “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My Sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” Granted, there were poets and musicians in America in his time, but what Adams was really expressing was “the truth that a country must have a sufficient level of wealth, stability and security before large numbers of its citizens can engage in pursuits broader than the basic struggle for survival that war and politics — the substitute for war — address.”

Wait a sec, where have I heard that echoed before? Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock of course.

“The first generation works their fingers to the bone. Second generation goes to college and innovates new ideas. The third generation goes snowboarding and takes improv classes.”

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