Humanities Education and Career Preparation

Friday, November 22, 2013
Humanities Writ Large

Two of Duke's intellectual leaders recently discussed the place of the humanities in a broad education. Their comments addressed a common theme in media coverage of humanities education — the value of the humanities in preparing for a career.

President Richard Brodhead, in a discussion on San Francisco's KQED, noted that "since the recession there has been a world of anxiety about education and its value in this country." It's an environment that has led some to conclude that "the only education worth getting for our kids is the one that gets you a job on day one," and that the humanities are a dispensable part of such an education.

"One of the pieces of information that the humanities commission was really struck by," Brodhead said — referring to the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which he co-chaired — "was a poll that's been done of CEOs and HR people across the United States. [The poll] discovered that 3 out of 4 employers said that what they want in new hires are skills like critical thinking, complex problem solving, abilities in written and oral communication. We've been a little bit talked out of those skills, but those are all founded in the humanities."

Professor of English Tom Ferraro, in a video segment about his activities as a member of the Bass Society of Fellows, explained that "forever and a day, English and Econ majors get the highest scores on the LSAT and the other standardized exams. Partly it's because those exams use language," but it's also because the study of literature encompasses many other fields.

"If the humanities is working well," Ferraro concludes, "it's going to make you smart in ways that are going to be immensely valuable in whatever it is you choose to do."

Brodhead, too, stressed the broad, complementary value of the humanities and noted that he is "not recommending the humanities as against anything else. Humans should look to build as many powers of the mind as they possibly can and the humanities are certainly among those."

Asked about a New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik that argued, in the words of the host, that "the reason to study the humanities is that we're human and that's enough," Brodhead replied that he agreed with Gopnik, but "when you've got a kid about to graduate from college, you can believe all that and still hope that the child is employable."