Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Saving the Humanities

(University of Michigan)

Peter Conn has written a helpful, guiding piece called "We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities." The bottom lines include:
  • University humanities departments are shrinking.
  • Adjunct professors are growing in numbers; tenured faculty are diminishing (anyone who teaches at a college or unversity easily sees this).
  • "Full-time tenured and tenure-track jobs in the humanities are endangered by half a dozen trends, most of them long-term."
  • The "University of Phoenix" phenomenon ("for-profit education") is growing. "According to a report in The Chronicle in February, 7 percent of all American postsecondary students attend for-profit institutions. Presumably, like Phoenix, all of those colleges and universities depend mainly on part-time faculty members."
  • Getting a job with a Ph.D in the humanities is harder than ever.
  • University humanities departments are not responding to these and other threatening conditions.
As for me, way back in the 1970s, when I was checking out Ph.D programs in philosophy, I walked into a university philosophy department and saw a sign that warned me about the meager job market for persons with philosophy degrees. I kept that in mind, but went for it anyway. The humanities were in my bones. As Conn writes, the humanities "lie near the heart of mankind's restless efforts to make sense of the world. Debates over war and peace, justice and equity: From the uses of scientific knowledge to the formulation of social policy, the humanities provide a necessary dimension of insight and meaning." Note: "meaning" is found in the humanities, not the sciences.

Though jobs may be few, I consistently see, in the students I am privileged to instruct every semester, a deep desire to talk about the Big Questions. For example, I just finished giving 60 10-minute oral exams to my philosophy of religion students. A number of them tell me how interesting and meaningful they find our class discussions as we talk and teach about God (existence/non-existence), evil (as problematic for God), meaning (nihilism; teleological thinking), ethics (moral values: objective/subjective), neurophilosophy (mind/brain matters; qualia; dualism), and free will. Just yesterday a few of my students told me they would like to major or minor in philosophy. These deep issues remain important. What is it to be "human?" Hence: the Humanities.

See Conn's 5 recommendations for graduate programs in the humanities.