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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.”

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 argument is based on the apparent fact that only 7% of our recent college grads graduated with a degree in the humanities this year. Thus, the crisis.

This is, frankly, too simple a thesis. Folks who are concerned that the humanities are either dying or, even worse, have no place in contemporary public discourse or business practice have not yet considered the complexity (or the beautiful simplicity) of the humanities; they are not a discrete set of disciplines laid out for each of us to master.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. You can do this through being a professor, sure. But you can do this 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. I have a PhD in Rhetoric and Cultural studies. 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. I’ve met or “networked,” with close to 100 people. These folks have run the occupational gamut from medicine to marketing, from fundraising to design, from non-profit to tech corporate. Here’s what they tell me; we want people who can ask good questions. We’re looking for employees who are curious, who can generate excitement, who are keenly aware of organizational culture. We want folks with creative intelligence a la Nussbaum. We want folks who can collaboratively problem solve, but also think outside of the box. We want you to make us laugh. We want you to be smart. But we want you to also know that you don’t know everything. These folks are looking for humanists. In the best sense, a humanist is, in Quintillian’s words, “a good man speaking well.” In modern day parlance, this translates to “a conscientious person, who thinks critically, asks questions, is receptive, and an active part of the conversation.”


That said, though employers tell me they are looking for a humanist, 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. Even so, this suggests to me 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. Because it’s coming. Soon. To a Medium near you.