In a recent post on the slate.com site, William Pannapacker cynically writes, “It’s my view that higher education in the humanities exists mainly to provide cheap, inexperienced teachers for undergraduates so that a shrinking percentage of tenured faculty members can meet an ever-escalating demand for specialized research.” Um….no. Higher education in the humanities exists to further our understanding of what it means to be human. This is a more important topic in our mediated digitized age than ever before. He goes on to say, “In all likelihood, a humanities Ph.D. will place you at a disadvantage competing against 22-year-olds for entry-level jobs that barely require a high-school diploma.” How does he know? Pannabaker has a PhD so he should know something about citing the source of his assertions.
Pannapacker then proceeds to propose a six-point “plan” for reforming higher education. The implication of some of what he suggests is that tenured faculty don’t teach undergrads. Pardon me, Mr. Pannabaker, but at my research-intensive university I teach an intro class of 180 freshman and 100 transfer students every year. Perhaps that’s the exception that proves the rule, but in my department, all but maybe one faculty member of 30 teaches undergraduates. And, they enjoy it, too.
On the other hand, I actually agree with several of Pannapacker’s points, most notably #5 “Train students for real careers. Graduate programs must stop stigmatizing everything besides tenure-track positions at research universities that almost no one will get.” He’s right. Tenure-track positions in the humanities, especially at research universities, are few and far between. A PhD in the humanities or, for that matter, the social sciences, is all about cultivating an understanding of the contexts in which we humans exist and being able to communicate that understanding to others. Those are important skills for which there is a marketplace not only in academia but also in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. The research and critical analysis skills gleaned in a PhD program are applicable to both business and government. They can even be useful in social enterprises striving to help the world be a better place.
Personally, I would prefer a world with a little less cynicism and a little more humanism.