Let's hear it for the humanities

Our society depends on citizens who understand the world and can adapt as the future unfolds, explains CMU professor DAVID R. SHUMWAY

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Twenty-five years ago, the English Department of Carnegie Mellon University started a program in literary and cultural studies. At the time, CMU was nationally known as "Computer U," reflecting both its achievements in computer science and misinformation about undergraduates being required to have their own computers.

A university known for science and technology and advertising itself as "the professional alternative" was not where one might have expected to find a cutting-edge program in the humanities. Ironically, it was the fact that CMU did not have much of a tradition in the humanities that allowed the new Literary and Cultural Studies program to be developed and to flourish.

Since then, Carnegie Mellon has become recognized as one of America's leading universities, and the quality of its humanities programs is one reason why.

In 1979, more than 10 years after the merger of Carnegie Institute of Technology and Mellon Institute, CMU had just two humanities departments, history and English. They were left over from the old women's college, and neither had a Ph.D. program.

Now, CMU's humanities departments offer nationally recognized graduate programs. As of the most recent survey, the university's English Department was positioned just below the University of Pittsburgh's much larger English Department in US News rankings of graduate programs.

CMU's Literary and Cultural Studies Program, which I helped to design and in which I have taught since it began, is unified by a distinctive approach. Cultural studies emerged out of England in the 1970s as a way to understand the relationships that create culture -- meaning not only literature and the arts, but all artifacts and activities that humans create -- and those that create society -- meaning the political, economic and other connections people have to one another in different times and places. Cultural studies seeks to understand novels, poems, plays and films in the context of the societies in which they were produced and consumed, and to understand the social and historical differences between cultures revealed in these works of arts.

This project is valuable in itself. Human society is distinguished by the ways in which it represents itself and the world. Humans have never used language merely to exchange information. Storytelling is common to all human cultures, and the number and variety of stories and other representations have grown exponentially since the industrial revolution.

While literature in its broadest sense was for most of human history unrivaled as the dominant form of representation, cultural studies takes account of the fact that in the 20th century other media have challenged its status. We continue to take literature seriously and teach writers from Chaucer through Toni Morrison, but we also pay attention to film, television and digital media.

It has become fashionable in recent years to mock such study because it does not have a particular vocational goal. The misunderstanding that higher education should always lead to an occupation is behind the silly statistic that undergraduate English majors have a smaller chance of becoming English professors than college basketball players have of playing in the NBA.

Most undergraduates who study the humanities do not do so with the intent to become professors. Rather, they correctly see such study as good preparation for almost any profession, and that it is an advantage in a world where particular job categories disappear and new ones are always emerging.

The Bureau of Labor statistics understands this, calling liberal arts training good career preparation. Recently, executives in important corporations such as State Farm and Google have expressed interest in hiring employees who have the skills that the humanities nurture, among them communication, critical thinking, analytic reading and comprehension of global integration.

Google has even said that it plans to hire humanities Ph.D.'s. There has been an oversupply of these scholars relative to academic jobs since the 1970s, and while holders of humanities Ph.D.'s historically have found work as writers and in the not-for-profit sector, it is surprising that the business community did not recognize their value earlier.

It is true, of course, that most students who seek a Ph.D. want to be professors, and almost all of those who have earned one in our program have full-time jobs in universities. Our M.A. and B.A. graduates also have been successful in fields that range from teaching to work in museums, banks, nonprofits and publishing. A small number have gone on to earn Ph.D.'s elsewhere and then to university jobs.

Perhaps more important, programs such as ours offer challenging courses to students of all majors, since practitioners of all specialties benefit from the ability to think critically and communicate effectively.

Though many of us working in higher education have had to fight for the humanities wherever we have worked, it is interesting to see that in Pittsburgh, at "Computer U," at other universities and at companies like Google, the importance of the humanities is being recognized. Just one more testament, I believe, to their enduring value.


David R. Shumway is professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University (shumway@cmu.edu).


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