Tuesday, August 25, 2015

21st century humanities majors

In my post below, I discussed what I think are the most job-relevant communication and collaborative skills. Boiled down a bit differently, they are:

(1) attending to and understanding directions
(2) being competent enough to fulfill them
(3) getting your own points across clearly.

It is these skills--rather than the more social aspects of communication and working together--that are in increasingly short supply.

And all three of them relate, in part, to something over which there's been a lot of handwringing recently: the value of a liberal arts education. What with the decline in the numbers of humanities majors, and, in particular, of English and literature majors, along with all the forces out there "disrupting" traditional education, more and more people are wondering what, if anything is being lost.

Here's my answer. Fewer humanities majors, and fewer traditional (reading and analytical writing-based) humanities classes, means fewer students reading significant quantities of challenging prose, writing significant numbers of analytical essays, and getting significant amounts of feedback on their reading and writing skills. What's being lost, in other words, are

(1) careful reading skills, including the ability to sustain attention while reading
(2) writing skills, including the ability to make clear points and coherent arguments

There relate directly to the workplace skills deficiencies I note above.

In addition, as far as literature majors in particular are concerned, there is some reason to think that reading, discussing, and analyzing literature fine-tunes empathy and ethical reasoning. Reading--especially in nonfiction-intensive courses like history--also substantially enhances general knowledge. Empathy, ethical reasoning, and general knowledge, in turn, probably enhance performance in a whole variety of vocations, including 21st century jobs.

Ironically, some people think that college needs to be rethought in light of how much today's jobs are changing. We never know which specific skills are going to be important in the future, so we should focus on more general ones like flexibility, creativity, grit, and team work. But I'm guessing that most jobs still require the ability to follow complex directions and get your points across clearly: indeed, these are some of the most general, generalizable skills there are.

If these skills are so important, why are so many students defecting from the departments that, traditionally, have fostered them the most? Perhaps students are ill-informed about what the humanities can offer them, assuming that the more "pre-professional" majors--business, communications, interactive media?--provide more relevant vocational training. Or perhaps the humanities departments themselves are at fault: perhaps, as I've suggested earlier, they are no longer focused on informational content, complex characters, ethical subtleties, or, most importantly, on developing students' reading, writing, and analytical skills.

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