On Getting a Ph.D. in the Humanities

Jordan Weissmann reports that job opportunities for academics are pathetic and shrinking. He wonders why humanities Ph.D. programs haven’t “collapsed:” “From 2011 to 2012… the number of first-time students enrolled in arts and humanities Ph.D. programs had grown 7.7 percent.” [my emphasis] He’s curious to know what drove the decision making of those of us in these programs generally. The market’s been bad for years now, after all.

I don’t know what to say. I’ve always felt kind of dumb, and the fact that I could rant incomprehensibly or find questions that almost make sense bothered me. My first real experience with the humanities was in undergrad, when I realized that reading a book or a poem was tough work that never really ended.

I guess that’s a testimonial-type answer, and I don’t really like giving it. But along the way, I’ve seen so much pettiness within academia and have had real doubts about the value of the classroom. I honestly don’t know how valuable a classroom is unless someone already cares to master the material. I want to change the question: Why do many of us stick with the humanities? Why don’t we just give up? Why do we want the time to read and write and have pointless debates?

Now I know I have something closer to the heart of the matter, because I have a line of questioning that isn’t reducible to a testimonial or a career plan. It involves a sense of value, to be sure, but that sense of value is informed by a want to be relevant, if not practical. And this line of questioning can easily turn into a larger critique of our age without getting snobby. It is true people like Jefferson and Hamilton read everything, including a lot of stuff we would dismiss out of hand as useless. But it’s also true they were very mindful of the practical and probably didn’t care that most Americans could cite the finer points in Montesquieu if they were busy mapping a mountain range or making money by brewing craft beers.

I’d rather get snobby. What I suspect is this: we are at an absolute nadir in terms of people caring about literature or the classics or rhetoric. Our best talent in terms of writing makes movies and tv and comics. They, being exceptional, read a ton and know that the experience of carefully reading – of extracting the opinions of another slowly from a text by working through what you yourself think and eliminating the worst ideas – they know that experience does not sell. What sells is nostalgia, which might be the true porn of tumblr (other than the stuff that is porn). To not put a too fine point on it: when we’re complaining about too many Ph.D’s in the humanities, what we’re really saying is that we have too many people who care to read and write. We need that number to be 0. It’s a similar phenomenon to journalists being told to stop blogging and start tweeting because people who consume print media are little better than heroin addicts. But again, this is just a suspicion.

On a more serious note, I do think a little bit of Marxist-type criticism helps here. There’s capitalism and the culture of capitalism. The latter demands everything conform to its sense of value. The university as a whole does not fit comfortably into this mold, so it has been transformed. It’s now a tax shelter for oligarchs who run sports leagues with unpaid labor and collect federal subsidies. Maybe the reason why some people are in the humanities is that they want to make sure, despite our corruption, that future generations can have access to the past. Maybe they think an example needs to be set, that it needs to be shown someone cares about fashion in 15th c. England or an obscure treatise on horsemanship. Maybe that’s what’s going on, that the humanities are more a vocation and less a career. Maybe.

1 Comment

  1. I can’t say much about the humanities as a whole, but my take on literary studies is that they are suffering because an entire generation of scholars has been teaching their students not to trust literature. Looking at it this way can turn the situation into a hopeful one, for if you do trust literature, then you can believe that the toughest times can also be times of transformation and the renewal of faith.

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