Advocating Undergraduate Study of the Humanities

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article (log-in required) about the release of three reports by Harvard University’s Arts and Humanities Division, Rosemary G. Feal, the executive director of the MLA, reaffirmed the value of a humanities education. The writing and analytic skills that humanities majors develop are highly desirable to employers, Feal said, and should not be overshadowed by science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The article outlines Harvard’s strategies to bolster interest in the humanities through new introductory courses, an emphasis on humanities offerings during freshman orientation, and theme-based interdisciplinary programs.


Christine Henseler

Alongside the development of new programs to bolster undergraduate education, we also need to articulate what we do, how we do it, and why humanistic studies add important perspectives to any and all fields of study. For this purpose, I have started a website, to which I welcome your input, called “The Arts & Humanities in the Workplace: Leaders Join the Dialogue” ( The goal of this project is to provide students, parents, and the public with concrete examples and outcomes that do not just come from within the humanities, and are articulated by humanists, but they derive directly from the leaders and future employers who plan to hire our students. When the head Engineer at Google says “I have a Philosophy degree and you should get one too,” then the world will start listening.

~ Christine Henseler
Union College, NY

Profile photo of Dennelle Gibbins-Lyon Walsh Dennelle Gibbins-Lyon Walsh

While I agree with most of your commentary, I can’t help but effuse over the idea that “Google-listeners” will equate “that” philosophy degree with dollar signs. Having been in the midst of struggling community college students (and employees) for the last two years, as a teacher and a professional, I find the following from William Barrett’s book entitled Irrational Man about the most apropos of anything I’ve heard recently – darn near ever, frankly.

“Habit and routine are great veils over our existence. As long as they are securely in place, we need not consider what life means; its meaning seems sufficiently incarnate in the triumph of the daily habit” (p 135).

Demetrio Anzaldo-Gonzalez

I hope this time is for the real and true inclusive and open Humanities seeking truth for all in this new interest from one of the most exclusive and traditional Educational institution that keeps silence for a long long time. I join my voice and ask yourself to join in an international chorus for justice, liberty and Truth for all people in the world! I believe in the goal for an interdisciplinary and true social and solidarity approach in our educational center public. private, local and international. I believe in you and myself in these chaotic and confuse times where the gold is shining and destroying everything, my answer is lear to learn with our and others all the time. Please, do not be lost and keep working for a better society now and ever…vale…MM

Jon-Christian Suggs

I suppose one should not look a gift horse in the mouth but Harvard’s arguments seem uninspired and uninspiring. Let me suggest another approach:

At the college where i taught, the humanities were seen as servants of the social sciences and students peered at the world through quantitative and behaviorist lenses for solutions to the management of public policy. Some of us in the humanities argued to the provost that what the college lacked was a site of inquiry into the normative power of the humanities in shaping matters of public concern. Students needed a chance to channel their interests in public life through the assumptions, questions, and methodologies that drive the study of literature, history, and philosophy. How had centuries of human curiosity, desire, and intellect shaped the major issues of their day and ours and constructed the categories into which we herd them? This was not, we argued, about getting jobs. It was about mastering the world that flows around and through all of us by trying to chart how those currents were channeled by the practices of our disciplines.

As a consequence, we created an interdisciplinary major in which the normative functions of literary study, history, and philosophy are examined as they interact to create concepts of justice. At the time, ours was the only humanities-based major in the college and it was immediately popular. It has persevered for over a decade now, even in the face of competition from newly invigorated emerging majors in lit, history, and philosophy proper. The point here is that the humanities offer another way to see the world, a “way” with a history and bodies of principles and conventions that have shaped and continue to shape the world. We study these phenomena because the exist in our past, our present, and our future, not because we have been hired to find jobs for people. That we can do the latter is all well and good, but we ought not abandon our real identity nor ought we neglect our true value to society.

Johanna M Smith

I applaud the idea of an interdisciplinary major which, as Prof Suggs says, would ‘offer another way to see the world,’ as opposed to marketing the humanities as job training.

Profile photo of Dennelle Gibbins-Lyon Walsh Dennelle Gibbins-Lyon Walsh

Right after reading this section, right after replying to Ms. Henseler’s comment, this example of “much needed humanities” just threw itself at me – lovely creature that it is.

This exact replication comes from a well-advertised, online university Ph.D. candidate’s public survey, in support of his dissertation (seeking degree in Information Technology). Egads! Okay, here are two of the questions, in all of their glory:

29. I will like my project to complete on time always if I could.
30. I usually will apply any tools and techniques that enable me complete project on time.

Wohoo, go STEM!

Christine Henseler

I totally agree with Jon-Christian Suggs comments, and I commend and support the work done “to channel [student] interests in public life through the assumptions, questions, and methodologies that drive the study of literature, history, and philosophy.” Allow me to clarify that I do not believe that the arts and humanities should be seen as serving the job market or any other discipline for that matter. The goal of the website is to make clear why the arts and humanities must remain at the heart of a well-rounded education for all students in the twenty-first century.

That said, as long as we use the same language we always have used to explain who we are, what we do and why, we will never change public opinion. Our disciplines are difficult to describe and define. Our work is not always tangible. As such, how do we make the public understand the value of what we do in a language everyone can understand? Some believe we shouldn’t have to. Maybe they are right. But I would claim that we urgently have to speak up and we have to speak to different constituents through various media outlets, using different communication styles, and addressing different issues. Most of all, we need to collaborate and work together to make our opinions heard. One way to reach the public, politicians, and policy makers is to translate the value of our scholarship into the workplace. This is not the only way, and it is not meant to exclude other methods, models, and messages. It is simply one way to help engage our public in a wider discussion of our educational importance.

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