Belaboring the Humanities

'The decline of the humanities' is also about how we value work

I know: by now even the literature professors are hoping the humanities will just kick the bucket already so we can finish talking about them—about how they’re dying, how they’re not really dying, how they already died in the 70s but nobody noticed, how the real reason they’re too sad to function is because the girls have left them.

Writings about the humanities tend to divide along these lines: the humanities may get you a lower-paid job, and are important; and the humanities may get you a lower-paid job, and are unimportant. I’m interested, however, in how we can use the skills emphasized in the humanities to probe why we think it’s natural that some jobs should be paid more, and some paid less—beyond the obvious (and socially scientific) answer that that’s just how the market works.

I don’t worry too much about my chosen field of study—and this is coming from a comparative literature and gender studies major whose schedule once included two poetry classes, a course on Modernism, and intensive introductory Italian. My comfort with this course of study, my conviction that I’ll be able to find an eventual career even if I’m paid less than my peers in engineering, is related to class. While a recent Harvard report found that full financial aid status has only a slight (negative) effect on eventual choice of humanities concentration for Harvard undergraduates, I’d wager it has a larger effect on the ease and confidence of that choice. It’s simpler to feel confident about employment prospects for English majors when you’ve grown up around examples of creative professionals making enough money to live comfortable lives, or when your parents and grandparents aren’t relying on you to support them. Choosing what to study, then, is an intimate negotiation with constraint. Because to a certain extent, it’s true: humanities graduates get paid less than their peers in engineering or the sciences—though do better than the alarmists would have you think.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we should stop funding the humanities, or that passionate people should neglect the powerful work they want to be doing in Ethnic Studies to go on to become engineers. Rather, we can use the specific ability of the humanities to question aspects of culture that seem natural to think about the way we value—or devalue—specific types of labor. Sure, petroleum engineers get paid more than social workers because of the market economy. But the market economy is also a terrain of human values and unequal power; often, the Invisible Hand is visible, and a Koch brother’s. There are cultural reasons, as well as fiscal ones, why social workers might be paid so much less than, say, computer scientists: a devaluation of types of labor considered traditionally feminine, for example. This isn’t separate from an analysis based on economics: rather, the cultural and the structural construct one another.


We can see this question of value, and how it plays out structurally, in the very way in which we talk about education. This is most evident, perhaps, in recent debates over compensation for teachers: American teachers are paid less than their peers with a similar educational background, or than their counterparts abroad, some argue, because of a cultural devaluation of education as a field. Harvard Law School Professor Annette Gordon-Reed makes a similar, though less culturally oriented, point about the structural problems of education funding in the New York Times, arguing that the economic pressures that dissuade students from studying the humanities don’t exist because the humanities are useless, or because they can’t help students get jobs. Rather, she points to rising tuition prices and student debt, implying that government divestment in public education (rather than, say, petroleum) is at least in part a matter of value: We cannot have a realistic discussion of the state of the humanities in the United States without talking about the disinvestment in public education that is taking place at all levels of America’s educational system,” she writes.

I’m not arguing that students who are responsible for economically supporting their families should be asked to unquestioningly accept Helen Vendler’s challenge to make “frugality seem as affluence.” However, the tools offered us by the humanities can help us reframe the terms of the argument—to evaluate not what professions are paid more, but why we think this makes sense, and how we can imagine different sorts of value attached to labor. Natalia Cecire, a Yale postdoc in English, argues in a post on her blog that the humanities’ social change potential is too-often ignored: “It seems to me that when pundits deride the humanities as irrelevant, it’s because we aren’t, and that poses a threat.” One of the threats of the humanities is its ability to challenge the way we value labor itself.

Reina A.E. Gattuso ’15 is a joint literature and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Adams House. Her column usually appears on alternate Tuesdays.


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