A Philosopher's Blog

Defending the Humanities: Practical Value

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 15, 2013
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In a previous essay, I noted the concern that the humanities are in decline in the academy. In this essay I will argue in defense of the practical value of the humanities.

Honesty compels me to admit that some of the problems faced by the humanities are self-inflicted. First, humanities faculty have generally not done a very good job “selling” the practical value of the humanities to students, parents, politicians, and society as a whole. Part of this might be the result of the notion that humanities faculty should not stoop to selling their beloved disciplines like a pimp sells his hookers. My view is that the practical value of the humanities can be shown without descending to the level of what would amount to intellectual prostitution.

Second, some humanities faculty devote considerable time to saying and writing ridiculous things about absurd matters as well as creating pointless academic problems whose solutions would achieve nothing of significance. These absurdities infest the professional journals and abound at the professional conferences—thus perhaps making it a mercy that the general public studiously ignores these venues. Those who become masters of both self-promotion and empty absurdities are often the most lauded of faculty—enjoying excellent compensation, modest workloads, and considerable attention. This enables critics of the humanities a ready stock of easy targets when they wish to argue for the uselessness of the humanities. Having endured finely nuanced deconstructions of cybernetic genders in fictional spaces, I have considerable sympathy for their disdain. However, I will endeavor to show that this fluffy absurdity is not all there is to the humanities and that there is actual practical value to the disciplines of the humanities.

Before entering into my defense of the humanities, I must first engage in a brief discussion of practical value. After all, to show that the humanities have practical value requires having a concept of practical value. There is also the matter of the often overlooked concern about why a specific view of practical value should be accepted as the proper measure of value.

Interestingly enough, defining practical value and arguing why a specific view of practical value should be accepted are both subjects that fall solidly within the humanities, specifically my discipline of philosophy. While some will obviously be tempted to go with their own view of practical value because it is “obvious”, this would be to engage in the fallacy of begging the question—that is, assuming as true what actually needs to be proven. Thus, one obvious practical value of the humanities is that it is needed to sort out the very nature of practical value and to determine which view of practical value that should be accepted.

For the sake of the discussion and brevity, I will stick with a fairly simple view of practical value that is popular in certain circles. The basic idea is that the practical value of a major is its economic value. Put a bit crudely, this can be considered in terms of how effectively job fillers are created for the jobs created by the job creators. The general measures of value would thus involve employment rates and salaries.

One common stereotype is that those majoring in the humanities are doomed to unemployment or, at best, poor salaries. Anecdotes (and jokes) do abound about people who got a degree in a humanities discipline and ended up doomed. However, as any philosophy major should know, an appeal to anecdotal evidence is a fallacy. What is needed is not anecdotes but statistical data.  Conveniently enough, Georgetown University released a detailed report on this matter.

Based on the usual stereotypes and common anecdotes, one would expect theatre majors, literature majors and philosophy majors to have very high unemployment rates as recent college graduates. Interestingly, theatre majors have an unemployment rate of 6.4%, literature majors are at 9.8% and philosophy majors are at 9.5% (unemployment rates are significantly lower for experience degree holders). Interestingly, the information systems (14.7%) and architecture (12.8%) have the highest unemployment rates. Computer science (8.7%) and accounting (8.8%) are fairly close to the humanities. Those doing best are elementary education majors and (5%) and nursing majors (4.8%).

Taking employment as being a measure of practical value, these statistics show that humanities degrees have practical value. After all, the employment rates for those with humanities degrees are competitive with non-humanities degrees.

In terms of compensation, the humanities fields generally offer less salary than some other fields. However, the average income of a college graduate in the humanities considerably exceeds that of the average income of a high school graduate. Thus, by this measure of practical value the humanities do have practical value. Thus, when people ask me what someone can do with a humanities degree, my cynical (but truthful) answer is “get a job and get a paycheck.” Some people get some very good jobs and some even become famous.

In addition to the concern about the practical value of a humanities there is also concern about the value of humanities classes—especially those that students are “forced” to take. While schools do vary, it is common for universities to have a humanities requirement and various non-humanities majors often require classes in the humanities. For example, the Florida public university system requires students to take two classes in the humanities. As another example, many of the students in my Critical Inquiry, Ethics, Aesthetics and Introduction to Philosophy classes have to take these classes for their non-humanities major.

It could be argued that “forcing” students to take humanities classes is a waste of student time and money (especially given that tuition is at an all-time high and graduation rates are still depressingly low) because such classes have no practical value to the students. That is, these classes do not contribute provide practical skills that would have a practical payoff. As with the humanities majors, it will be assumed that practical value in this case is a matter of economics.

Some humanities classes do have clear and general practical value. Obvious examples include the basic English classes (writing skills are uniformly useful), critical thinking classes (which is all the rage today), and logic.

Other humanities classes have practical value that does depend on the context. For example, those intending to be involved in overseas business can benefit from humanities classes covering these nations. This relative value is not unique to the humanities. For example, a class in biochemistry will not be particularly useful to someone who plans to manage a company that develops game apps for iPads, but it would be unreasonable to dismiss the class as useless simply because it is useless to some people.

Since the practical value of a class can be relative it is well worth considering whether or not a specific class has practical value for a specific major or student. As such, I would not claim that all humanities classes have practical value to all majors and all students. I would also not claim that all science or math classes have practical value to all majors and all students. However, the mere fact that a specific class does not have practical value to some students or some majors does not entail that it has no practical value.

As a final point, there is some concern that people should be reluctant to make an appeal to the practical when defending the value of the humanities. After all, this would seem to concede too much to those who regard themselves as opponents to the humanities. Rather, it could be contended, the defenders of the humanities should avail themselves of more traditional appeals to the inherent value of the humanities.

There is some merit to this concern and appealing to the practical does run the risk of handing a considerable advantage to those who wish to diminish or dispose of the humanities. However, I would contend that the humanities can be defended on practical grounds without abandoning the more traditional arguments in its favor. In the next essay in this series I will endeavor to argue for the value of the humanities on non-practical (that is, non-economic) grounds.

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 15, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    Peoples can learn things in the humanities that will gives them insights into the human person and condition that will serve them well for a lifetime.

    There’s a vast amount of literature concerning the human person and condition and, because people never change, this is a treasure trove of unchanging knowledge one can learn and use. Unlike the sciences, which changes often, with each new theory and discovery, and demands keeping up with the latest theories and research. All of which may (and likely will) end up in the ash can of history.

    There are masters of self-promotion and empty absurdities in the sciences too. “Quarks”, string “theory”, and “dark matter” come to mind here… as does Richard Dawkins and the hokum of biological evolution.

    • WTP said, on November 15, 2013 at 3:04 pm

      AJ, this comment right here shows the value of a humanities education more than anything I’ve seen in quite some time. Good job.

      • T. J. Babson said, on November 15, 2013 at 5:03 pm

        Your snark is showing, WTP.

        • WTP said, on November 15, 2013 at 11:39 pm

          Oh, stop it TJ. You’ll make me blush.

    • magus71 said, on November 16, 2013 at 7:52 am

      Actually quarks are the perfect example of a scientific argument for God. No one has ever seen a quark. But by mathematical inferences, we can know they probably exist.

      • T. J. Babson said, on November 16, 2013 at 11:03 am

        So how do you go from quarks to God?

        • WTP said, on November 16, 2013 at 6:47 pm

          Higgs boson. It’s the God Particle(TM)

        • magus71 said, on November 16, 2013 at 6:47 pm

          I’m only making an anaology, but there have been mathematical arguments. A classic argument made by atheists against belief in God, is to say, ” I have a unicoprn cupped in my hands, but I won’t let you see it. But you must believe in it.” The unicorn is supposed to be like an unseen god, that people must believe in only because someone says so. But this is a poor example, as with the unicorn there is *nothing* but what the person says as evidence. But as with a quark, pieces of seen evidence can form a shape that represents the unseen. So while the atheist demands a proof of God, people who believe ask first, “why is there something instead of nothing.”

          “Just because” is not good enough for some.

          • T. J. Babson said, on November 16, 2013 at 8:19 pm

            But why a quark rather than a rainbow?

            • magus71 said, on November 17, 2013 at 7:34 am

              Well, for this analogy, we can see the rainbow, but we can’t see quarks. We can’t see God, or sense him with our 5 senses, but I think it’s still possible to come to the conclusion an intelligent creator exists.

              But certainly something like a rainbow can be one of the pieces of evidence. It’s just as I said before about evolutionary theorists whom feel it necessary to attribute everything to a evolutionary cause. I think that’s really stretching what we think we know about evolution. Why do we like rainbows? Art? Why do we like music? And not just music, but certain types of music? To me, these are evidence that we were designed for something. That we were designed to enjoy the aesthetic.

  2. Intellectual perspective | Cool lady blog said, on November 16, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    […] Defending the Humanities: Practical Value (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) […]

  3. WTP said, on November 17, 2013 at 1:25 am

    OMG…TJ, did you follow the link to what Mike describes as a “detailed report on this matter”? Did you follow the source for that “source”? Incredible..or should I say uncredible.

    • TJB said, on November 17, 2013 at 9:45 am

      Nothing pegged my BS meter. What did you see?

      • WTP said, on November 17, 2013 at 1:29 pm

        Ah, it wasn’t a “detailed report”, it was a little more than a sales brochure from Georgetown U. The “source” material for the stats was based on essentially voluntary survey responses. Completely unreliable from any professional statistical analysis perspective.

        Not to mention that the stats as stated fly in the face of any objective observation of reality. We recently went as far away as NYC to recruit a DBA. The demand for software developers continues to outstrip supply. Ask any manager who has been trying to hire them.

        • T. J. Babson said, on November 17, 2013 at 8:35 pm

          From the report:

          Unemployment seems mostly concentrated in information systems (14.7 %) compared with computer science (8.7%) and mathematics (5.9%). As noted in an earlier report, hiring tends to be slower for users of information compared to those who write programs and create software applications. Moreover, the relatively low unemployment rates for experienced Bachelor’s degree-holders and those with a Master’s degree or better seem to indicate these majors have a stable employment outlook.

          What are people with an “information systems” degree trained to do?

        • T. J. Babson said, on November 17, 2013 at 8:38 pm

          From Wikipedia:

          Information system (IS) is the study of complementary networks of hardware and software (see information technology) that people and organizations use to collect, filter, process, create, and distribute data. The study bridges business and computer science using the theoretical foundations of information and computation to study various business models and related algorithmic processes within a computer science discipline.

          As I suspected, this is gobbledegook. No one knows what someone trained in “information systems” actually knows.

  4. Alan said, on November 19, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    Your unemployment figures are not accurate, the actual figures for engineering/computer science are half of what is mentioned in your article. This is a report prepared for US congress in 2011:

    http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43061.pdf

    • WTP said, on November 19, 2013 at 3:38 pm

      But YOUR report does not support what Mike wants to say, therefore YOUR report is irrelevant.

      As I keep trying to ‘splain to peoples here, it’s what goes on inside Mike’s head that counts. All else is folly.

      • Alan said, on November 19, 2013 at 6:25 pm

        Relax dude ! Don’t need to be disrespectful to the author, in general I’m supportive of this article (although I’m a CS graduate student), I just wanted to point out that unemployment rates mentioned are not accurate according to official figures.

        BTW, are you here everyday checking the comment section?! Just curious !

        RELAX, don’t get caught too much into an online discussion it will ruin your life… trust me I know !

        • WTP said, on November 19, 2013 at 11:36 pm

          Thanks Grasshopper, but you have much to learn. Sit idly by for a couple decades whilst the academics and journalistas perpetuate old lies and create new ones. Watch as this socialist foolishness consumes a couple generations. Watch as the potential of unfortunately naïve friends is drained away by the misinformation, self-loathing leftist anti-success mentality.

          Online discussions cannot ruin one’s life. One-sided propaganda spread through an “educational” system fed to impressionable youth can ruin a lot of other people’s lives. It’s a sometimes silent, deadly cancer on our society that saps the productivity of people in the prime of their lives. Look, I’m all for an open and HONEST discussion in regard to differing perspectives and such. There is much to be gained. I don’t use the word “lie” lightly, but there is NOTHING to be gained by the perpetuation of easily refuted, obviously wrong “facts”. The time to RELAX and wait for others to confront this nonsense is long past.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 21, 2013 at 4:08 pm

      I used a 2013 report, so the numbers would probably be different. Also, the percentages are based on new graduates-those with experience generally have lower unemployment rates.

      • WTP said, on November 22, 2013 at 3:09 am

        These “stats” are BS from the get-go. It’s an f’n sales brochure based on an unreliable data collection methodology that defies critical observation. Typical sophistry to try to obfuscate away the false premise on which you whole point is based.

    • WTP said, on November 20, 2013 at 6:02 pm

      Many.
      1) Kinda hard to get anti-depressants in the undeveloped world, due to both supply and cost.
      2) People in undeveloped countries are less likely to have as many options or as high expectations as those in the developed world. Thus less likely to “fail”.
      3) In the Developed world, you are more accountable for your own well being. This has its downsides as well as up sides.
      4) People in undeveloped world are more willing to accept as fate the bad things that happen to them. They don’t blame themselves as much.
      5) When everyone around you lives in sh*t, you’re not confronted with a relative disparity in wealth unless on the rare occasion one of your wealthy, elite masters happens by. But even then, in such disparate situations people will be more inclined to suck up to the wealthy than to resent them.
      6) The wealthy elite in the third world hold a tremendous amount of power over the masses, so there’s not much to be done about the situation.

      All these items overlap in numerous ways. I could go on and on…

      • magus71 said, on November 20, 2013 at 6:54 pm

        But 10% of Americans are on anti-depressants? Theodore Dalrymple is a clinical psychologist who worked in the British prison system, as well as running his own private practice. He states that in almost every case of depression in which a person was taking these medications, the person could give him a laundry list of things they’d done in their life that *should* make them depressed. And the anti-depressants would not change anything, including their depression.

        In fact, the medications are hardly more effective than placebo, and the placebo effect is likely responsible for the good things reported; because of the side effects, most people can tell if they’re getting the real thing or the sugar pill.

        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-mark-hyman/depression-medication-why_b_550098.html

        I have a theory. The way we’re living is making us miserable.

        • magus71 said, on November 20, 2013 at 7:01 pm

          Here: The New England Journal of Medicine investigates the allegation that studies showing positive effect for anti-depressants get published, but studies showing negative outcomes are not.

          “RESULTS
          Among 74 FDA-registered studies, 31%, accounting for 3449 study participants, were not published. Whether and how the studies were published were associated with the study outcome. A total of 37 studies viewed by the FDA as having positive results were published; 1 study viewed as positive was not published. Studies viewed by the FDA as having negative or questionable results were, with 3 exceptions, either not published (22 studies) or published in a way that, in our opinion, conveyed a positive outcome (11 studies). According to the published literature, it appeared that 94% of the trials conducted were positive. By contrast, the FDA analysis showed that 51% were positive. Separate meta-analyses of the FDA and journal data sets showed that the increase in effect size ranged from 11 to 69% for individual drugs and was 32% overall.

          We cannot determine whether the bias observed resulted from a failure to submit manuscripts on the part of authors and sponsors, from decisions by journal editors and reviewers not to publish, or both. Selective reporting of clinical trial results may have adverse consequences for researchers, study participants, health care professionals, and patients.”

          http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa065779

          This is a concern of mine because these things are handed out like candy to Soldiers and their families.

        • WTP said, on November 20, 2013 at 11:31 pm

          Heh…I’m surprised it’s only 10%. I’d guess closer to 30%. The problem is that anti-depressants create their own problems. To some extent people with mild mental illness are canaries in the social coal mine. Putting them on anti-depressants instead of addressing social issues that cause and/or amplify many of the problems is a bit like fitting those canaries with scuba gear instead of looking for the gas leak. This is not to say that depression isn’t a serious problem for many people. The danger is allowing it to become a crutch or an excuse. There currently is a campaign to make depression hyper-acceptable, practically cool. Heard a commercial on the radio just the other day selling this idea.

          What is especially sad is the leftist bent of the vast majority of mental health professionals. Most of them are in the business because there is something wrong with them. My wife and I have noticed that in many of the more bizarre stories you read about have a mental health professional angle. For instance the professor at Alabama/Huntsville who shot up a tenure committee meeting was working in neurobiology. There were a string of these stories for a while. I recall a board-certified shrink out on the left coast who wrote a book about 9/11 conspiracy theories blaming Bush/Cheney for the whole mess.

          To an extent we are making our selves miserable by tolerating societal insanity rather than addressing it. More and more burden is falling on fewer and fewer people. Meanwhile as more people move into the cart instead of pulling the cart, those in the cart lacking productive work to give them a sense of purpose and self-respect sink into mental illness.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 21, 2013 at 4:13 pm

          I agree. Aristotle and other virtues theorists make an excellent case that human happiness arises from being an excellent human being. Focusing excessively on status and wealth while ignoring the core virtues is a a ticket to misery.

          Exercise and virtue and the best cures for depression.

          • magus71 said, on November 21, 2013 at 6:01 pm

            I was going to ask about Aristotle; I thought it was he that said happiness comes from acting the right way.

          • WTP said, on November 22, 2013 at 3:15 am

            Dismissing status and wealth of others as most often being the result of ill gotten gains is also a ticket to misery. It’s called “envy”. I see your fumbled Aristotle and raise you one fabled Aesop.

          • WTP said, on November 22, 2013 at 3:23 am

            Also, Exercise and virtue and the best cures for depression. Again you’re rather clueless and insulting here. Depression afflicts the virtuous as well as the athletic. I give you Buzz Aldrin, Earl Campbell, and Winston Churchill for a start. I thought you lefties were supposed to check your privilege.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 21, 2013 at 4:14 pm

        Good analysis.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 21, 2013 at 4:11 pm

      People need to run more.

  5. […] Defending the Humanities: Practical Value (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) […]


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