The Humanities in the Marketplace: Major Misconceptions?

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Liberal arts enrollment, and funding, in colleges and universities has long been targeted for the biggest financial cuts during economic troubles. Stanley Fish describes a recent crisis at SUNY Albany in his New York Times blog without presenting a persuasive economic rationale, at least from the undergraduate point of view, for reversing the closing of departments.

One answer might be that a humanities undergraduate background is more practical than it often seems. Consider this report from the Wall Street Journal. Psychology, once a favorite social science major, clearly ranks lowest, with Economics and Environmental Engineering, also apparently usable subjects, a few notches above.

The biggest surprise is that majors in humanities fields have fared as well as those in some business and technical ones. English and History are slightly above Marketing and slightly below Civil Engineering. In fact, English at 44 percent is not so far below Finance at 47 percent. (Contrary to the Mad Men stereotype, Advertising majors are among the relatively happiest with their careers so far.)

The survey has clear implications for the humanities. Their degrees are not the prologues to flipping burgers that some people suppose. Many students are using degrees in humanities to launch satisfying careers. Why not study how their courses have helped them? Why not find better ways to link the humanities with business? John Roebling, who designed the Brooklyn Bridge, was inspired as a student by the philosopher Hegel to come to America. In our own time Roone Arledge, who transformed television sports coverage, heard the lectures of Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren at Columbia. His Times obituary reported:

Two of the signature touches that Mr. Arledge brought to the programs he later produced he learned in these courses: the importance of narrative and the role of the hero. Years later the announcers of ABC Sports were taught to emphasize what Mr. Arledge called the story line of whatever game they were covering and to focus on a star whose personal story could transcend the outcome of the events itself. The 'up close and personal' biography of an athlete, which ABC's Olympic coverage invented to introduce viewers to obscure foreign athletes, became the template for personalizing the stories of stars in every sport.

"So much of what Roone did from 'Wide World of Sports' to the Olympics to 'Monday Night Football' was about the storytelling," said Don Ohlmeyer, another of Mr. Arledge's protégés who went on to run NBC's entertainment division.

Does reminding people of the practical uses of English, Philosophy, and History reduce these fields to crass economic objects? As someone who has taken the scenic route, I'd follow the sociologist Erving Goffman, who told a Marxist colleague he had no problem with the other side in their negotiations commodifying them "as long as they treat us as expensive commodities."

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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