Philosophy, literature, mythology, psychology, climate, history.

We Need Ways to Study and Teach Humanities Outside of the Universities

with 2 comments

An Anecdotal Account of the Problems

Boy at Writing Desk, 1846-7, Adolph Menzel

A philosophy professor whom I know won the academic lottery, earning a prestigious teaching position at a premiere European university. He’s an excellent scholar doing interesting work, but he is quick in conversation to emphasize the key role that luck has played in his career. Through happenstance, he formed a working relationship with one of the leading philosophers in Europe, who took my friend under his wing and championed his work on Nietzsche.

When I talked to him about my own interest in pursuing a philosophy PhD, he told me that when he arrived to defend his dissertation, he was taken aside by a member of his committee, who asked him, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“What do you mean?” my friend asked. “Are you serious? My dissertation is finished!”

“Yes,” said the professor, “But once you’ve got a PhD in philosophy, no one outside of the academy will ever hire you again.”

This seemed true to my friend, who has seen colleagues earn PhDs, only to try to return to programming jobs when they couldn’t find teaching work. Some of them were unable to get hired in markets where they were once sought-after.

I’m sure this isn’t the whole story, but this is just one of the literally dozens of warnings I’ve been given about pursuing a PhD in the humanities. What I seem to keep hearing is that higher education in the humanities is a monstrous freakshow of grueling, expensive training that churns out too many PhDs for an market that is not only already overcrowded, it’s shrinking rapidly.

Add to that turf wars and political intrigue that make Richard III look like a student council election. As I’ve often heard about the academy, the battles are so fierce because the stakes are so low.

I’ve been considering PhD programs in the humanities since 1996, and boy, do I have stories. Don’t we all?

The first time I thought seriously about it, I talked to a friend of mine who was finishing his dissertation in history. He said to me in a serious voice, “I’m gonna tell you something that I wish someone had told me before I started. Take a serious look at the job market before you start.” Last I heard from him a few years later, he had his PhD and was working for his father-in-law’s car dealership.

I’ve talked with at least two dozen grad students and professors since then – friends, colleagues, acquaintances, people in programs I have considered – and not one of them has encouraged me to get a PhD. Not because I lack the aptitude, but because the sacrifices are so great and the rewards are so negligible.

I’ve read the articles and editorials in the Chronicle of Higher Education (here), in the Wall Street Journal (here), the New York Times (here or here) … there’s a cottage industry, writing articles that warn people not to pursue PhDs. There’s even a dour blog called 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Grad School.

And unless you’ve been through it, you just wouldn’t believe the hardcore bona fide craziness of some of the folks who run their departments like their own personal fiefdoms.

Take the librarian I knew at a prominent university, the curator of a rare manuscripts collection. He routinely and arbitrarily denied access to the material to students he didn’t like. Some of the students who relied on the collection literally chose to drive to a library 20 hours away rather than deal with him. Not kidding. And that’s just for starters – the story gets worse.

But there are too many stories to tell them all. Take the guy I knew who got a psychology PhD – his adviser was the chair of the human subjects board that must approve any research projects involving human participants. His adviser went over his project and said, yeah, this looks good – then the committee met, and it was rejected. He had to do some inconsequential changes, then wait three months for them to meet again. Same thing happened again – his adviser said yeah, looks good, then it was rejected. And it happened a third time. That’s nine months he had to wait, doing nothing.

Or take the guy I knew who did not receive his PhD for a full calendar year after it was completed and approved, because he had to resubmit it after finding that the page margins were too large.

You go through all of this, and it takes an average of 9.3 years, and you might easily come out a hundred thousand dollars in debt or more, like this adjunct professor of medieval history who’s on food stamps. And imagine competing for a job in a third-tier market with three hundred other applicants, all of whom have relevant PhDs as a minimal qualification.

Here’s What I’m Getting At, and Where I’m Looking for Ideas

I’ve read it and heard it a hundred times – higher education in the humanities is a broken system that produces far more highly-trained candidates than the market can bear. We all know that. So why do people do it?

I think there are people who just assume they’ll play the game and they’ll win, and get that chair at the school in Boston or Los Angeles, and obviously some people do.

But I think a lot of people do it because they can’t imagine doing anything else. They’re doing the work they love – it means something to them. It’s what they’ve always wanted to do – to study history, to teach it, to write about it. Or literature, or German, or critical theory, or what have you.

Now, those are the people I’m interested in. They want to read, write, think, debate, exchange ideas, teach, contribute to the social conversation that moves our culture forward. They’re not tied to the university system per se.

The university system as it exists is an outcome of historical processes and market forces, and it has little to do with what these people are interested in. Why don’t these people start doing the work they love outside the university system? Why don’t they create their own resources for exchanging ideas? For teaching? For writing? For learning?

Yes, they may not be able to get much or any money doing it, but how much are they expecting to make from their academic careers, if they’re lucky? Maybe they won’t be able to devote themselves full time to research, but how much time does an adjunct professor spend doing the work that they love, versus performing various duties that don’t interest them?

I’m certainly not arguing there is no role for universities, or that there is no way to be happy within it. I’m saying a lot of people just want to learn and teach and write, and the system is not serving them.

I am looking for resources like this, and so far I’m not seeing much. They should exist. Maybe they do exist. Do they? What have you heard? What do you think? Please let me know in the comments section.

Update: Just when I thought my assessment of higher education couldn’t get any darker, I read Death by Degrees, a searing editorial in the terrific magazine N+1.


Written by Mesocosm

June 4, 2012 at 7:10 pm

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Arrived by way of your Holderlin translation. Far too young to pass meaningful judgement, but I enjoyed it immensely. Cue applause.

    This article caught my eye. Entirely depressing, and no cure peeking over the horizon. Still, I hold out hope for answers, though they may never come.

    Bookmarked the blog. (And the link – also appreciated)


    June 10, 2013 at 4:43 am

    • Thanks for your support – I’m really pleased you got something out of my site.

      I wish the outlook were better for Humanities PhDs, too. There will always be some number of people who make a career of it, but the numbers are against it, and I’ve known too many people who rolled the dice and came up with situations I couldn’t accept, like teaching in Europe while your wife teaches in New York.

      The long-term cure I see is that the life of our intellectual culture will increasingly move outside of the academy. It seems inevitable to me, and not necessarily a bad thing in many ways.


      June 10, 2013 at 7:56 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: