Here’s How to Save the Humanities
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we’d like our philosophers to be welders and our welders philosophers.
By Sanjena Sathian
“In the end, actually, we’re all dead.”
“Living in a dystopia hurts people’s feelings.”
“I spent nine months reading smutty fan fiction, and my teachers believe it’s academic.”
So go the witty summaries of students submitting their theses on lolmythesis.com. It’s the ultimate in intellectual humble-brag-slash-self-deprecation: I went to a fancy school and all I got was this completely obvious statement about the world!
Right about now, undergrad and grad students are probably turning in amply footnoted, double-spaced, 100-page opuses that might be read by a few bespectacled eyes and then shoved onto a shelf or maybe into a journal. They will experience the momentary zoom of satisfaction, sleep for hours, graduate and never talk about those years of work in full color again. Many people might cite this as the ultimate example of the uselessness of the humanities: They’re irrelevant, and they’re privileged. As Marco Rubio quipped back when he was still a thing, “We need more welders, less philosophers.” (A humanities education might have reminded him that it’s fewer, not less, but oh, well.)
“We’re in a transitional period,” says David Schaberg, dean of humanities at UCLA — a large public university where humanities classes offer a smaller respite from mega-lecture halls.
What if, though, these fat forgotten papers hold the key to saving the humanities — at a time when they sure as hell need saving: The National Endowment for the Humanities, which provides research grants and support, reported last October that appropriations were slashed 20 percent between 2010 and 2015. Here’s the twist: When students file those papers, capstones or final projects — which we’re arguing all students should do, in some form — they must include an element of relevancy: a talk, a service-learning initiative, a magazine article, a public installation, a conference, a door-to-door sales pitch, anything that gets that work out of the library and into the world. Employers could attend fairs to hire those with projects that apply to their field.
There’s much one could try. Public-facing philosopher Alain de Botton makes a good example; he wrote a literary biography of Proust called How Proust Can Change Your Life, which tricks us into learning about this whiny flowery Frenchman by offering self-help lessons. The sciences need this too — if you’re studying black-hole physics, I think you owe all of us who had shitty science educations a child-friendly, elegant explanation of your field.
Or take Victoria Williamson, an alumna of the University of Dallas now working at an IT firm in Texas who studied in a philosophically infused psychology department. Her thesis might boil down to this: “Telling someone they have a mental disorder matters. It affects how they view the world and themselves.” She talked to clinicians who diagnosed patients with mental illnesses and examined the psychological and existential effects. A relevancy requirement “might have been a good thing for me,” she says; she would have ditched some of the Heideggerian musings on existentialism — and we might have gotten more sensitive shrinks.
Schabeg agrees students should think about “relevancy,” but he suggests starting that process “not just at graduation but at matriculation.” The idea of tacking it on at the end sounds distasteful to him, like an exit exam. Plus: “It depends on how you define relevancy,” he says. “You might end up implying that universities are vocational. And we’re not asking people to prepare for a first job — we’re asking them to prepare for a lifetime of thinking.”