On the Value of the Humanities

I decided to write this in response to a recent article I read on linkedin, suggesting companies ought to hire humanities majors to handle writing emails, reading piles of emails and general bullshitting because, in a nutshell, they’re better at it.

Here’s a quote: “Haters insist that Humanities majors graduate with no marketable skills. But what about the ability to bullshit? Every History/English/Philosophy/Religion major has mastered the art of bullshitting. And when your boss asks why SUV sales are 50% lower than projected, and you have no clue, who do you want fielding the question: someone who can solve for X, or someone who’s used to writing 80 page papers on post-modern symbolism in See Spot Run?”

You know, in general I agree with this, but I wanted to expand. I think there’s a lot more to be said about this topic.

As far as the article’s premise goes, it’s funny but it contains some serious aspects of truth. Still, there are some traits of these majors that aren’t represented either there or in the classics-professor ‘think critically’ boilerplate, which is also true enough by the by. This is that the humanities teach relatability — the ability to hear about the problems that aren’t yours, learn the context and circumstances of those problems, and obtain an understanding of motivations you may not necessarily have or agree with and decisions you may not have made. Or if not the ability, at least lots of practice.

As the humanities are given less prestige in civil discourse, we see problems start to crop up that used to not be problems when humanities were largely respected. When Russia invaded Ukraine we didn’t have enough people with the cultural studies background to speak the language or understand all the relevant details of the conflict. So few people in government have experience with cultural studies that most of our US ambassadors had never stepped foot in the countries they were appointed to, let alone speak the language.

As tech lords took over most major news sources, either organically such as in the case of Facebook, or directly such as in the case of Washington Post and Buzzfeed, we started seeing serious issues with journalistic ethics — plagiarism, low quality ‘news’, biased reporting, arguing from position, loose facts, painting straw-men, and second-hand rather than first hand sourcing.

English may be perceived as useless in a world where whatsapp generates billions of dollars by cutting communication down single word exchanges, but the ability to make a complicated argument using precise language is no longer common, to our detriment — just look at politics, where every position of every candidate has to be dumbed down into one sentence twitter-length boilerplate.

As for media production, one of the key tangible skills of humanities disciplines, the export of American media is an ambassador to other countries that conveys our values and shows them what we’re all about, not to mention a useful tool that is used every single day in every organization from newsletters to training videos to charts, graphics and sometimes even interactives.

In a time of rapid globalization, where your boss or your colleague might be from China or Europe, or even just an American culture that is vastly different from your own, you’re more likely to die from the result of a social conflict with another culture than ebola or global warming. In this context understanding your own culture, their culture, and how to produce media goods that facilitate greater communication should be considered valuable.

But it’s not, it’s just ‘errrrrrrrrbody gotta code’ — of course we are starting to see college graduates who take this advice who aren’t predisposed to be star coders but might be great at something else, and they don’t find it’s the panacea they’ve been promised. What if Mark Twain had instead been pressured to become a below average steam boat engineer? In a world where everyone is trained in engineering, everyone is a hammer and every problem looks like a nail.

To be fair, humanities in universities have also failed. What should be an apolitical discipline that teaches you how to think critically, engage with other cultures, form a complex argument and communicate it simply, tends to more often than not be the epicenter of political indoctrination for professors who want to expose young people to the propaganda of their worldview. And frankly a lot of these professors don’t care so much about the discipline they studied or the futures of their students (which is why their arguments for its usefulness are often so hollow), so much as they like having a job they can’t be fired from where they get to read texts, or watch films, or some other thing they’re privately passionate about.

If there is one thing the humanities should definitely learn from the sciences it’s how to more greatly disassociate themselves from the task at hand and more greatly engage in the dissemination of actual skills, communicate to students what they’re giving them, and provide a value proposition.

The product their model has produced is an army of ideological warriors who loudly define people’s differences and make increasingly convoluted demands on society, who often don’t seem to know any more about culture (ours via literature, news and films, or anyone else’s) than anyone else does.

The product a humanities discipline should be producing is an army of diplomats and elite media producers who observe and celebrate conflicting groups’ humanity and bring those groups together, whether that be the feuding between the design team and the production team, the miscommunications between staff and corporate, the differing faux pas in the US office and the Japan office, or the ability to go overseas and speak the language.

It’s no wonder the people teaching this stuff are under the gun — they’re performing their jobs badly. But we ought not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Ryan is a writer from Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter here, and be sure to buy his new book, Gods of the American Wild.