In today’s world, do liberal arts matter?

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Ari Bildner ’09 declared himself a history major as a junior. About a year later, Bildner is now frantically job-hunting and doubting whether his broad-based studies in the humanities will translate into a job.

“Should I have been a history major or sucked it up and been a computer science major?” he asked. “The really specialized skills are still getting jobs and all these kinds of vague, nebulous nonprofit jobs are disappearing.”

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He concluded, “It’s pretty scary for a history major to leave Yale.”

The current economic crisis has left Yale’s next graduating class scrambling to find jobs. It has also raised questions about the value of a liberal arts education — one focused on the humanities rather than pre-professional training — for students who, upon graduation, will be faced with an especially bleak job market.

But for scholars like English professor Lawrence Manley, the struggle to keep the humanities relevant and practical, at least in the minds of students, has taken place over an entire generation during which students have been “very pressed to find economic success,” he said. Still, the current recession, he said, calls even more attention to the questions explored in the humanities.

A WASTE OF TIME?

For at least a decade, Yale undergraduate course registrations in humanities departments — ranging from philosophy and history to music and East Asian languages and literatures — have steadily declined. Statistics collected by the Office of Institutional Research reveal that registration numbers in the humanities have decreased by over 15 percent since the 1997-1998 school year. Last year, humanities accounted for only 35 percent of total enrollments, over a 6 percent drop since 2000-2001, while enrollments in the social and natural sciences have increased by 3 percent to a total of about 45 percent of enrollments. The remainder of course registrations are in other Yale College programs and courses in the professional schools.

While some worry that the gloomy economy will further deter students from studying the humanities, 10 liberal arts-minded professors and students interviewed suggested the humanities are worth pursuing regardless of the financial landscape. Professors from across the liberal arts disciplines pointed out that times of crisis are exactly when people are more apt to critically question various aspects of human life.

“I’d be surprised if anything would happen other than an increased demand in times like these,” Kirk Freudenburg, a professor of classics, predicted. “It might well be true that humanities flourish in times of economic crisis. It’s amazing what kinds of changes people make to their lives when these things happen.”

Freudenburg asserted that the play of events that led to the current recession embodies what scholars in the humanities are trained to study. As people began to realize that the economic system was in for a bust, he explained, old assumptions about neo-liberal economics were dismantled, leaving behind relative confusion and chaos and forcing Americans to re-evaluate their worldviews.

“That’s a kind of defamiliarization that has sent people … wondering about this whole sort of world we live in,” he said. “[That] is what people in the humanities do.”

Questioning the invented constructions of society and probing behind the assumptions that others take for granted, Freudenburg said, constitutes the work of humanities scholars, “whether they are reading Ovid or studying Heidegger.”

“INTELLECTUAL SCIENCE”

The instinct to question assumptions is not the only transferable skill offered by a liberal arts education. Manley described the humanities as an “intellectual science” that views the world from historical, interpretive, linguistic and symbolic perspectives — modes of understanding that other disciplines cannot adequately address. But he concedes that the social and natural sciences have been “very powerful” in explaining various aspects of how the world works.

“It’s a very pragmatic world that we are living in, and those without those pragmatic skills are being cast by the wayside,” he admitted. “But I think we’ve seen what the limitations of those [social science] models are, too.”

Even though the skills offered by the humanities initially seem to have a “veneer of non-utility,” Freudenburg said, they actually make for highly desirable job qualities because the current state of writing and critical thinking is in “pretty bad shape.”

The pervasive, narrow view of utility further disadvantages the humanities to other disciplines since the connection between acquired skills and job opportunities is less obvious.

Norma Thompson, director of undergraduate studies for the humanities major, and Freudenburg both recalled encounters with students who expressed concerns about the practicality of a major in the humanities. Most of the time, the professors agreed, the students were relaying the concerns of their parents.

“They get push-back from their families about doing it because a lot of people get very uncomfortable,” Thompson said of prospective humanities majors. “People do all sorts of things, but they do all sorts of things in all the majors, and there is no direct correlation between being an economics major and making a great living.”

In fact, Freudenburg said, many of his students in classics went on to “get picked up” by hedge funds after graduation. “They can study a complex issue, think it through, organize their throughts about it and present it as a two page report and not a 10 page rambling thing.”

PINCHING PENNIES

But given the current tough job market, some seniors set to graduate with humanities degrees have lost faith in the usefulness of the liberal arts.

Bildner admitted he is not sure if the history major has adequately prepared him to enter the job market as a competitive candidate. Despite the analytical skills and critical reading, writing and research abilities he has gained, Bildner said he is skeptical about the extent to which these skills will help him in his job search.

Other seniors have kept up a more positive outlook. Christina Person ’09 was a Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations major before she switched to Modern Middle East Studies. She said she is familiar with students majoring in fields like history or philosophy at Yale who are just as prepared to go into the finance sector as non-humanities majors.

But students agreed that previous work experience is more important than one’s major when it comes to getting a job.

In an era when job markets are volatile and job descriptions are constantly evolving, professors agreed that employment success depends not so much on having practical knowledge as on honing particular habits of mind capable of solving a wide array of problems.

The humanities can give you that — and then some.

As Jane Levin, director of the freshman humanities program Directed Studies puts it: “What could be more ultimately useful than to have some understanding of the nature of human life?”

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