Humanities Shmunanities: All We Need is Love


David Brooks has been getting lots of airplay, or web-play or whatever regarding his recent argument that the humanities are in “crisis.” His concern is based on the alarming fact that only 7% of our recent college grads graduated with a degree in the humanities this year.

His perspective, however well intended, is off the mark, though. Brooks is concerned that the humanities are either dying or, even worse, have no place in contemporary public discourse or business practice. He’s focused on the disciplines. The truth is, though that the value of the humanities does not lay in our collective capacity to master this set of disciplines. Disciplines are irrelevant. The classics are not the classics. History is not history. Literature? Not Literature. Philosophy? Well, you tell me. The humanities are ideas. They provide us, together, with a lens through which to read, interpret, and, yes, act in and create our worlds. This happens in academia, to be sure. But it also happens in marketing, innovation, design, banking, government, law, administration…wherever. The humanities are alive and well in each of these sectors.


I’ve only recently come to discover this liveliness. I’ve taught graduate seminars in rhetoric, basic writing classes, courses in literature, women’s studies and all kinds of other cool stuff. For 6 years, I ran the public Humanities agency in Portland, Oregon (yep, the National Endowment for the Humanities has independent affiliates in 56 states and territories). Now, I’m unemployed. On the dole. And it’s no party being one of the 4.4 million (according to the bureau of labor statistics). But here’s what’s happened: I’ve talked to a lot of people. These folks have run the occupational gamut from medicine to marketing, from fundraising to design, from non-profit to tech corporate. They tell me they want people who can ask good questions. They’re looking for employees who are curious, who can generate excitement, who are keenly aware of organizational culture. They want creative intelligence, collaborative problem solvers, out of the box thinkers. They want folks who can make them laugh…smart folks who know they don’t know everything. Business are looking for humanists. A humanist like Quintillian’s “ good man speaking well—” in modern day parlance, “a conscientious person, who thinks critically, asks questions, is receptive, and an active part of the conversation.”


I am that. But still, I have been out of work for nearly 4 months. I’m zeroing in, though. I’ll have nailed a position within a month or two, I’m certain. Still, I see that though people say they want humanists, they’re scared of them. Scared of what that lens will do, once applied, to business practice. Because one thing I can tell you is that it WILL change things. We will start thinking differently about diversity—and that’s a good thing when you consider the superficial and ridiculous diversity training so many of us receive these days. We will start thinking differently about the relevance of connection, compassion, honesty, and even love in the work place. There. I said it. Love. That’s another conversation. Look for it.