Two Defenses of the Humanities


If you teach in the humanities and you need a bit of encouragement that, despite all the trash talk directed at our fields, what you do is still important, here are two recent essays you might want to read and share with others over this long holiday weekend.

First, Tracy Chou, a prominent software engineer, has written a piece with the long but fetching title “A leading Silicon Valley engineer explains why every tech worker needs a humanities education.”  She writes:

I studied engineering at Stanford University, and at the time I thought that was all I needed to study. I focused on problem-solving in the technical domain, and learned to see the world through the lens of equations, axioms, and lines of code.  I found beauty and elegance in well-formulated optimization problems, tidy mathematical proofs, clever time- and space-efficient algorithms. Humanities classes, by contrast, I felt to be dreary, overwrought exercises in finding meaning where there was none.  I dutifully completed my general education requirements in ethical reasoning and global community.  But I was dismissive of the idea that there was any real value to be gleaned from the coursework.

She then goes on to describe some of her work experience in Silicon Valley, for instance, how she helped design a “block button” for social media software and had to engage with thorny issues surrounding the conflict between harassment and free speech.  Later she worked on algorithms powering “the streams of content presented to users upon initial login, the default views we pushed to users.”  This led to some thorny questions:

It seems simple enough to want to show users “good” content when they open up an app.  But what makes for good content?  Is the goal to help users to discover new ideas and expand their intellectual and creative horizons?  To show them exactly the sort of content that they know they already like?  Or, most easily measurable, to show them the content they’re most likely to click on and share, and that will make them spend the most time on the service?

From this experience Chou concludes:

Ruefully—and with some embarrassment at my younger self’s condescending attitude toward the humanities—I now wish that I had strived for a proper liberal arts education.  That I’d learned how to think critically about the world we live in and how to engage with it.  That I’d absorbed lessons about how to identify and interrogate privilege, power structures, structural inequality, and injustice.  That I’d had opportunities to debate my peers and develop informed opinions on philosophy and morality.  And even more than all of that, I wish I’d even realized that these were worthwhile thoughts to fill my mind with—that all of my engineering work would be contextualized by such subjects.

It worries me that so many of the builders of technology today are people like me; people haven’t spent anywhere near enough time thinking about these larger questions of what it is that we are building, and what the implications are for the world.

The second article is an op-ed by Nicholas Mason, Professor of English at Brigham Young University, entitled “Go Get That English Degree.”  Mason responds to a previous op-ed by Michael Barone, which argued that “Numbers Say College Isn’t Worth It.”  According to Barone, an editor at National Review, college and university professors “range from the merely liberal to revolutionary leftists.”  They have wholly “politicized” fields like English so that “students interested in Shakespeare or American constitutional history need not apply.”  Mason finds three fictions here:

First, after correctly asserting that today’s professoriate leans disproportionately to the left, Barone fails to mention that the most explosive recent growth at American universities has been in fields like nursing, supply-chain management, electrical engineering and construction management, all areas that are either largely apolitical or traditionally open to conservative perspectives.

Moreover, according to one recent study, the supposed lock-step liberalism of university professors in fact varies widely across the country. . . .

A second falsehood undergirding Barone’s argument is that, as we’ve now heard from a half-century of conservative Cassandras, radicalized literature professors have managed to purge all “dead white males” from their syllabi.  Reality, however, is not quite so bloody.

Speaking from 20-plus years of classroom experience and discussions with colleagues from across the world, I can happily report that lovers of Shakespeare — or Jane Austen, Walt Whitman, or Toni Morrison — will generally find today’s English departments not only conducive to appreciating great literature but incubators of clear writing, inventive research and sophisticated thinking. . . .

A final myth propagated by Barone . . . is that liberal arts graduates inevitably find themselves unprepared for today’s workplace.  To counter this widely held misconception, in 2010, BYU’s College of Humanities began posting evidence to the contrary on its Humanities+ blog.

Here one can read national news stories detailing how one-third of Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees; admissions officers from top business, law and medical schools are said to prefer liberal arts majors; and billionaire entrepreneur and tech investor Mark Cuban recently predicted that “there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than … for programming majors and maybe even engineering.”

I don’t know if Mark Cuban’s prediction will come to pass, but I do know that if Chou is to be believed even those engineers will need a dose of the humanities as well.  And I do know that Mason is entirely correct when he states that Barone’s jaundiced view “is at once verifiably untrue and thoroughly uninformed about the nature and value of liberal arts degrees”  Kudos to Chou and Mason for making the case; their essays are worth a few minutes of your time.

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