How not to think about the humanities

April 9, 2014, 12:50 a.m.

This piece is part of The Daily’s “The Humanities in the 21st Century” series, running from April 7-11, 2014, which explores Stanford’s relationship with the humanities and the future of undergraduate studies in these fields. The other parts of the series can be found here.

Thinking about the humanities as a major these days is a fraught proposition. I won’t lie to you — there is risk involved if you are worried about employment. Students at Stanford are tremendously lucky — the University offers generous financial aid packages; the average amount of debt that students graduate with is relatively low. Nonetheless, one cannot avoid the fact that jobs in most fields are hard to find. The economic implosion of 2007, the result of a huge moral and ethical failing (let’s be plain and call it recklessness and greed), has left lasting scars on generations who do not have the luxury of not thinking hard, long, and gut-wrenchingly about staying alive economically.

Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the 21st Century, which has been called “one of the watershed books in economic thinking” by Branko Milanovic of the World Bank, amasses 200 years’ of data to show the inevitability of ever-increasing economic inequality. The plight of the 99-percent will only grow larger. So in a terribly ironic sense students are forced by this “market” to abandon the humanities precisely at a time when we need the critical, introspective, philosophical, aesthetic and ethical judgment that the humanities nurture in us.

Let me make just two recommendations to those who are interested (in whatever way) in the humanities, which are indeed at the core of the liberal arts education. (Remember, that is what college really is all about: It’s really not supposed to be a very expensive career development camp.)

First, do not think of the humanities as an “either/or” proposition. Diversify your resume. Acquire a wide range of skills and job experiences that will make you legible to a wide range of employers, even as you pursue your humanities degree. Stanford’s new, pioneering Joint Major programs with Computer Science plus Humanities departments is a fantastic opportunity to pursue multiple interests, but it is only one formal example. Use your time here to explore and create a selection of courses.

Second, and more importantly, do not confine your perception of and involvement with the humanities to the classroom. At the last meeting of the Modern Languages Association, the largest professional organization dedicated to literary studies in the world, there was a large open meeting in which we discussed how to help foster the humanities in this time of crisis. One speaker after the other made impassioned pleas for partnering across institutions of higher education and uniting with our public schools.

I said that we were thinking like educators, in terms of classrooms and curricula and professional connections. I suggested that instead we find partners with street artists, musicians, local art galleries, amateur theaters, book clubs and all sorts of informal collectives where the humanities do not have a course number. Put crudely, I think we have it backwards. The humanities exist out there in its most vibrant forms. Here we just take it for credit. And that is my pitch: Don’t think about the humanities as packaged in classes, syllabi. Don’t “take” the class for x number of units and then cross off one or another distribution requirement. You may be perfectly pleased at your in-class experience, but it will always appear in your memory (assuming that it does) as a class.

There are many scandalous things humanities teachers are accused of: We don’t really do “research,” we talk in vague theoretical terms, we don’t clock in the hours our friends in the sciences do, hunched over their lab tables and/or computers. All true.

I confess that I put in a lot of hours thinking — at odd hours and in odd places — about what we call the humanities. But I suppose a physicist sees phenomena all around herself and reads them in terms of the laws of physics. And that’s what humanists do. Let’s put it this way — when one is in a humanistic frame of mind, one is receptive and engaged in looking at life through a different lens, if even momentarily. One understands human behavior and senses one’s own life in conversation with the artists, writers, composers, performers, philosophers and historians that one has had the privilege of being in contact with, and whom have been gifted with your attention and thoughtfulness. Basically, we benefit from learning how others have dealt with proximate dilemmas, desires, fears, joys and problems, and in doing so we feel a little less alienated, particular and peculiar.

My prediction will be that, given our deeply troubled and newly precarious world, there will be a huge resurgence in the humanities. Maybe in colleges, but certainly in newly revalued life styles. There is only so much tolerance the human spirit has for denying itself the benefits of reflecting on why and how we are alive and live together.

I will end on a perhaps unexpected “political” note. As I alluded to above, you are thinking about these things because you have been put in a horrible position. As one famous rock lyricist put it along ago, “Lives become careers.” The humanities can, I think, do at least two things — as I said above, they can help you feel less lost and alienated in this new historical moment, and second, I hope, they can help your generation ponder the ethical issues that those who got us into this mess seemed to have all too successfully bypassed.

One image of the artist is the lone idiosyncratic genius set off from the world. I prefer the image Gabriel Garcia Marquez puts forward in One Hundred Years of Solitude: that of the artist in solidarity with humanity.


David Palumbo-Liu
Chair of the 46th Faculty Senate, Louise Hewlett Nixon Chair, Professor of Comparative Literature


Contact David Palumbo-Liu at palboliu “at”

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