Adventures in the New Humanities: Reframing the conversation
This post is part of a blog series, ‘Adventures in the New Humanities,’ by Judy Kutulas, the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities.
I suspect that those of us teaching in the humanities have all had some version of this experience. It often begins with the phrase “no offense” and then in some way belittles or dismisses our field of study. Sometimes it’s an advisee seeking a workaround to a humanities-based general education requirement. Other times, it’s a student assuming we’ll graciously extend a paper deadline to accommodate their clearly-more-important other classes. The cost of higher education increasingly drives the practicality argument for our students and their parents, the need to leave here with immediately marketable skills. Seen through this lens, the humanities just don’t seem to measure up. Or do they?
Please excuse us if we appear a little bit paranoid, but we humanists often feel like the rules changed when we weren’t looking or that the conversation got away from us. And it isn’t just paranoia, either. Let’s be honest; we are losing ground. In the last decade or so, the humanities have fewer majors and offer fewer classes than they used to at most colleges and universities.
Clearly, we need to talk about ourselves differently to reach our shrinking pools of majors and the growing numbers of general education students joining our classes. The humanities are everywhere, affecting just about everybody. So I’m going to try to reframe the conversation for a moment.
The humanities are everywhere, affecting just about everybody. So I’m going to try to reframe the conversation for a moment.
As it happens, those poor misguided souls who major in us aren’t doomed to poverty or unemployment. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2018 humanities graduates are slightly more likely to have jobs than biology grads. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences concedes that humanities grads might make less than engineering or STEM majors, but notes that at least part of those disparities can be explained by gender; men still make more money than women, and men disproportionately earn engineering and STEM degrees. Humanists can tell you both the history and the consequences implicit in that observation.
You can’t venture very far into the world of career statistics, moreover, without bumping your head against who we are. We are a liberal arts college — you know, that well-rounded, whole-person, vocation-rather-than-career kind of place. Humanities classes are just as central to the liberal arts as any other classes, or maybe just a little bit more central. No offense.
The schools that most directly correlate with wealth are technical — Cal Tech, the U.S. Naval Academy, the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences — or have served the sons and daughters of the wealthy for generations, like Stanford or Harvard (CNBC). As CNBC observes, these schools “do not accurately represent the socioeconomic, racial, and gender distribution of the U.S. population.” That’s also not who we strive to be as a college.
To summarize thus far: humanities grads are productive members of society even if you just assess that based on their pay stubs, and we are a liberal arts college where relatively few of our programs funnel students directly into same-named careers.
Yet, somehow, when it comes time to market, everybody else gets to talk about the future and meaningful jobs and we get to talk about … critical thinking. Critical thinking is valuable, absolutely, but it seems like those magic beans Jack traded the cow for — a cultural reference rooted in the humanities, please note — a reckless gamble when a surer future exists. No wonder our numbers of majors are shrinking.
There is nothing wrong with magic beans. In fact, our magic beans are transformative as well as practical, equally valuable whether you major in English or exercise science.
Michael Useem of the Wharton School — an economist, by the way — thinks that humanities-based critical thinking provides students with “A general understanding of how everything works.” Broad-based knowledge of EVERYTHING; you just can’t get more practical than that. We provide meaning. We help answer that most central of academic questions: So what?
We provide meaning. We help answer that most central of academic questions: So what?
The kind of analytic thinking necessary to our disciplines is especially magical because it is humanistic. The humanities encourage people to walk around in someone else’s shoes for a while, as Atticus Finch said to daughter Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird (another humanities reference). We expose students to other cultures and experiences, across time, across regions, across status, which encourages empathy and tolerance. As Inside Higher Education reported, students at liberal arts colleges who took a lot of humanities courses were more likely to exhibit the “characteristics of altruists” than those who didn’t. I realize we are at a college with a Norwegian Lutheran heritage, but there’s a really good Yiddish word to describe the kind of person who might emerge from all those humanities courses: a mensch, which the Urban Dictionary describes as “someone of noble character.” Now that’s the kind of person we aspire to send forth into the world!
We expose students to other cultures and experiences, across time, across regions, across status, which encourages empathy and tolerance.
Our students walk in the footsteps of James Reeb (Class of 1950), the St. Olaf graduate and minister who went down to Selma Alabama in 1965 to fight for social justice. Reeb’s major? History — but it could just as easily have been chemistry or studio art because all our students take some humanities courses.
Here’s another magical skill that students practice in humanities classes: writing. Our graduates take this ability to a wide variety of places, whether you are award-winning novelist Siri Hustvedt (Class of 1977) or aspiring lawyer Derek Waller (Class of 2013), who just wrote about gender fluidity and health care for the Minnesota Law Review.
So, let’s press the conversational reset button. By far the best part of this blog has been hearing from other humanists, and one of those was Kurt Nelson (Class of 2004). He entered St. Olaf pre-med, but just became the director of religious and spiritual life at Bucknell University. He said he “fell in love with religious studies,” his true vocation, which wouldn’t have happened without general education requirements in the humanities. His comments reminded me of the true magic of the humanities: the pleasure, satisfaction, and pure joy of discovering new ways of thinking.
Consider all the students over the years who have had life-changing moments or epiphanies in our classes, who have put little notes at the end of their final exams thanking us for opening their eyes to a new way of thinking, or, as one of my students once did, call us from the library stacks eager to share what they’d found. Obviously the same things happen elsewhere in the curriculum, but we get to astonish our students with human stories, which are especially addictive. Also, infectious. Conveniently, thanks to the humanities, we have the communications skills to get others engaged.
I traditionally begin my women’s history class by reading a children’s book called Where’s Mommy’s Truck? It’s a gimmick with a purpose, introducing a class that tends to be heavy with general education credit seekers to a different view of our past. The class comes alive as students realize how a children’s book purportedly about gender equality values women who act like men are supposed to while ignoring those who perform “women’s work.” The late Jim Farrell once told me one of his advisees came that first day to make one of those polite “no offense” speeches before dropping my class, but I’d hooked her. She wanted to know more.
Fair or not, we in the humanities have to make a little more noise to be part of the modern-day curricular conversation. We might just have to accept the reality that we’ll have fewer majors and more general education students for the foreseeable future. Persuading that latter group of students to fit the humanities into their lives requires us to be a little inventive. Maybe it’s a children’s book read on the first day or my colleague, Steve Hahn’s, recent invention of Skate Con, a Great Conversation discussion of Paul’s epistle to the Romans that took advantage of Steve’s love of skating and the new St. Olaf Ice Arena. Or maybe you just have to be as theatrical as Professor of Philosophy Charles Taliaferro or Professor of Classics Anne Groton. There are a lot of students out there who can carry our traditions forward whatever their majors, and all we have to do is get their attention.
So, fellow humanists, don’t promise your students that they’ll learn critical thinking, even though they will. Instead, assure them they’ll find intrigue, mystery, joy, sorrow, life in your class. Be dramatic and enthusiastic. We may have a high percentage of students filling our seats for the general ed credits, but that doesn’t mean we can’t gift them with the wonders of the humanities. And when someone belittles what you do with a comment prefaced by “no offense,” maybe don’t be quite so Minnesota-nice in return. Angry, at least for women, is the “in” emotion this season. There are at least two books written on the subject, Good and Mad by Rebecca Traiser and Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, by Soraya Chemaly, both authors trained, of course, in the humanities.
So, fellow humanists, don’t promise your students that they’ll learn critical thinking, even though they will. Instead, assure them they’ll find intrigue, mystery, joy, sorrow, life in your class.
Want to help reframe the conversation or at least one small piece of it? I am looking for humanities professors interested in revamping our humanities self-presentation during Admitted Student Days in the spring. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have thoughts or want to be part of the planning.
Judy Kutulas is a professor of history at St. Olaf College, where she teaches in the History Department and the American Studies program, along with American Conversations. She is the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities, charged with helping to revitalize humanities teaching and learning at the college. Read her inaugural ‘Adventures in the New Humanities’ blog post here.