Dear Members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences:
I have a MA in Twentieth Century literature. I spend my professional minutes teaching undergraduates who are training to become engineers, scientists, economists, and physicians. When I tell my students at the beginning of each new semester that what I studied is not at all what we’ll be doing in our class, all of them smile / giggle / sigh in relief.
As a result of this, I have spent the better part of a decade wondering about the value of my knowledge. My students graduate from college with a practical skill and a clear career path. Most, if not all, of them have had the experience of several internships prior to graduation–all of these internships are paid–and all of them lead to jobs after graduation with starting salaries that surpass my current one. I loved my literature training–loved it so much that I forewent other majors in which I had the talent to be successful; however, when twenty-two year olds who cannot shape a paragraph well are landing jobs more lucrative than what I earn with my MA, it’s fairly disheartening.
And then there’s the practical piece. These students make stuff. They design bridges and green buildings and artificial hips. They study AIDS treatments and problematic antibiotic use amongst livestock. They write code in their sleep and create apps that keep children quiet on airplanes. Whatever it is that my training allows me to contribute to the world is a lens that’s become fairly cloudy as my years away from my academic pursuits stretch on.
Your study, then, came at a good time. But I was disappointed to find that it’s resulting in mostly lip service. I’m unsure if the problem lies in the actual study or in the politicians who somehow get involved in discussing it. I think it’s both.
Let me be clear.
We in the humanities aren’t just offering the American economy and society “well roundedness.” We bring critical thought, synthesis, and the absolutely underrated ability to translate that thought and synthesis into writing. While my knowledge of the Modernist poets makes me a veritable delight at a dinner party, it’s the paper I wrote analyzing Marianne Moore’s “The Fish” that actually makes me good for American innovation. It’s me taking something excellent and offering a new way of making it useful. Isolating something tiny and illuminating it as something integral. As it turns out, this matters, because if I can do this with Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens, I can do it with non-literary things too.
My set-up STEM students cannot do this. And also, they don’t want to do this.
Lynh Bui makes this point in a Washington Post article:
“[E]ngineers are paying more attention to the humanities to better understand the social and cultural context of the communities for which they design products.”
That’s fine, and I agree. But to me this also implies that America doesn’t need humanities students, it just needs STEM students who dabble in the humanities. And that is absolutely untrue.
So, members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, let’s do the study we really need–the hard one where we measure the value of what humanities students bring to America and US innovation. It’s going to be tricky, because our output is harder to quantify than output from those in STEM. But you’re a smart group; you can make it happen. Let’s help students of all disciplines understand that studying Kipling, Dickens, and Kerouac makes one just as vital as studying chemistry and concrete. And I’d like the rest of the GDP concerned world (and those summer internship people, and everybody who works in the banking industry–but that’s a different story for a different day) to factor this into their algorithms as well.