Joe Yurgine: Decline of humanities discouraging

February 23, 2019

Kenyon College is a small Liberal arts college in Gambier, Ohio, with about 1,600 male and female students.

Sitting on a hilltop location with Gothic and Greek Revival architectural buildings, it’s been ranked one of the top five most beautiful campuses in rural areas. When my daughter chose to attend that college after graduating from Bishop McNamara, we were quite happy about it. The curriculum is rooted in traditional liberal arts and sciences.

Toward the end of her college career, she brought 12 of her classmates to our house in Kankakee. They were all on a spring break trip to Arizona. When they arrived late in the day, it was like a platoon of young people who had just come in from the Cuban jungle fighting with Che Guevara. Long hair, a few beards, army surplus grunge clothing, hippie style dress etc. Yet, after we all sat down with drinks and food, they all were extremely communicative and articulate. Their majors were a mix of English and other subjects in the humanities. Judging by thank you notes my wife and I later received, they also could write well, with words that were clear, direct and simple.

I mention this because today there is much discussion about the value of a college degree in the humanities. Some colleges even are morphing out of liberal arts. Are we witnessing the decline and fall of the English major?

There are economists (Gary Becker at the university of Chicago, for one) who argue education is an investment similar to buying a machine. If you read the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 2018 report discussing the state of the humanities, you walk away with their analysis of the grim career outcomes of graduates from the field. The teaching of humanities has fallen on hard times. The report points out the “evidence shows that humanities graduates earn less and have slightly higher levels of unemployment relative to science and engineering majors.”

As a result, unfortunately in my view, many colleges are becoming nothing more than trade schools, dropping courses in the humanities. Students are under pressure, perhaps because of debt, to choose fields that lead directly to good jobs, which means skipping the humanities. In fact, loans are being offered to students, but only if they choose fields relative to science and engineering. Politically, you even have a Kentucky governor who suggests academic programs and concentrations should be assessed and supported according to job placement and compensation outcomes. What the Kentucky governor didn’t mention is while there might be a disparity in salaries initially, vis-à-vis engineering graduates, humanities majors tend to catch up during time.

It’s a bit tiresome to hear arts degrees are irrelevant and do not equip you for a career outside of teaching. Coding is not the only route into tech jobs. Perhaps those who teach in this area ought to explain more why the humanities matter. The humanities prepare students for dimensions of life beyond the workplace. The tradition of Thomas Jefferson who founded the University of Virginia was that a liberal arts education was the core of our democracy.

Is the only measure of a degree worth the immediate monetary payoff? What ever happened to clear thinking, clear writing and being able to put words down in sentences that have merit? It’s not just writing well. It also is developing rational grace in conversation and communication with people you meet and deal with in the workplace and elsewhere. Maybe it takes living and being out and about talking to people to grasp these truths. It’s hard to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy. But I can say this. You will know it when you see it and listen to people who have it. For me, it happened when a group of young people from ostensibly the jungle walked into my house.