Digital Age Ruminations: The U.S. Humanities and Employability Concerns

By Andrew Urie

As any­one who has scanned recent U.S. edu­ca­tion head­lines knows, the human­i­ties face a cri­sis of legit­i­ma­tion amidst a tech-dri­ven econ­o­my in which the mantra of ‘job pre­pared­ness’ seems to have trumped the tra­di­tion­al aca­d­e­m­ic notion of human­ist schol­ar­ly inquiry. Faced with the task of defend­ing the rel­e­vance of their field of study, aca­d­e­mics have jus­ti­fi­ably cit­ed the crit­i­cal think­ing skills that are gained via a human­i­ties education.

Saint Anselm Col­lege, a tra­di­tion­al New Eng­land lib­er­al arts college.

More often than not, how­ev­er, many of these very same aca­d­e­mics pro­ceed to under­mine this emi­nent­ly legit­i­mate point by claim­ing that a uni­ver­si­ty edu­ca­tion should bear no rela­tion to voca­tion­al con­cerns. Indeed, when­ev­er any­one par­rots out this shaky line of rea­son­ing, I find myself pon­der­ing the fol­low­ing ques­tion: In what sense has the Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ty ever stood entire­ly apart from con­cerns about employability?

Grant­ed, the ven­er­a­ble mod­el of the lib­er­al arts col­lege that first arose in Amer­i­ca in the 17th cen­tu­ry claimed to be a forum of edu­ca­tion that once exist­ed almost entire­ly apart from mar­ket-influ­enced pres­sures. Yet, while lib­er­al arts col­leges like Har­vard and the Col­lege of William & Mary were his­tor­i­cal­ly found­ed with the intent of pro­vid­ing select young men with a moral edu­ca­tion that would cul­ti­vate a sense of civic respon­si­bil­i­ty, both of these insti­tu­tions have since mor­phed into research uni­ver­si­ties that fea­ture numer­ous pro­fes­sion­al programs.

While small lib­er­al arts col­leges con­tin­ue to exist in Amer­i­ca, only a hand­ful have been able to thrive with­out seek­ing some form of com­pro­mise with mar­ket-influ­enced exi­gen­cies. Con­sid­er­ing how ear­ly Amer­i­can lib­er­al arts col­leges had to pre­pare young men for future posi­tions as edu­ca­tors, cler­gy­men, and civic lead­ers, one could con­ceiv­ably argue that these insti­tu­tions were always par­tial­ly attuned to voca­tion­al imper­a­tives. Telling­ly, a young George Wash­ing­ton received his surveyor’s license from the Col­lege of William & Mary in 1749.

It was in the wake of the U.S. Civ­il War (1861–1865) that Amer­i­can research uni­ver­si­ties emerged and began offer­ing a vari­ety of pro­fes­sion­al pro­grams geared towards train­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of men and women for employ­ment with­in a rapid­ly mod­ern­iz­ing Amer­i­can econ­o­my. This inau­gur­al devel­op­men­tal phase of the Amer­i­can research uni­ver­si­ty was fol­lowed by a sec­ond major expan­sion­ary phase dur­ing the imme­di­ate post-WWII decades, a peri­od last­ing from rough­ly 1945–1975, one that has since come to be referred to as the ‘gold­en age’ of Amer­i­can high­er edu­ca­tion. Dur­ing this peri­od, uni­ver­si­ties expe­ri­enced unprece­dent­ed growth, and the human­i­ties thrived as a field of aca­d­e­m­ic inquiry.

Yet, while this sec­ond expan­sion­ary phase was osten­si­bly jus­ti­fied in mer­i­to­crat­ic terms, it also inter­sect­ed with voca­tion­al imper­a­tives geared towards train­ing indi­vid­u­als for employ­ment with­in a new knowl­edge econ­o­my. To this end, the human­i­ties were of piv­otal impor­tance. Aside from pro­vid­ing an aca­d­e­m­ic foun­da­tion for future edu­ca­tors, the field placed strong empha­sis on tex­tu­al analy­sis, which was con­sid­ered a valu­able form of train­ing for the future knowl­edge work­ers need­ed to fill roles in the nation’s then bur­geon­ing cor­po­rate and gov­ern­men­tal bureaucracies.

In our wired glob­al econ­o­my of the present, how­ev­er, the bloat­ed hier­ar­chies that defined these past cor­po­rate and gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions have been recon­fig­ured and stream­lined, result­ing in legions of cler­i­cal posi­tions ren­dered obso­lete. Amidst this high­ly com­pet­i­tive glob­al econ­o­my, crit­i­cal read­ing and writ­ing skills are clear­ly more impor­tant than ever before. Yet, the Web 3.0 tech­no­log­i­cal turn has brought about a marked shift in the medi­um through which infor­ma­tion is pro­duced and disseminated.

While in the past well-honed crit­i­cal read­ing and writ­ing skills were suf­fi­cient to get human­i­ties grad­u­ates hired for entry-lev­el com­mu­ni­ca­tion posi­tions, the con­tem­po­rary tech­no­log­i­cal shift to dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion has result­ed in a socioe­co­nom­ic envi­ron­ment in which cor­po­rate and gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions now increas­ing­ly expect appli­cants to be famil­iar with com­plex mul­ti­me­dia soft­ware appli­ca­tions, social media skills, and dig­i­tal ana­lyt­ic tech­niques. Giv­en that com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills have his­tor­i­cal­ly been the stock-in-trade of human­i­ties grad­u­ates, it is imper­a­tive that con­tem­po­rary human­i­ties stu­dents be exposed to new dig­i­tal skill sets if they hope to secure employ­ment in com­mu­ni­ca­tion-relat­ed fields upon graduation.

In this regard, the solu­tion to the cur­rent cri­sis of legit­i­ma­tion affect­ing the human­i­ties might very well reside in the grow­ing inter­dis­ci­pli­nary field of dig­i­tal human­i­ties, which should not be con­fused with online edu­ca­tion. For the record, I will state that I have no vest­ed inter­est in this field out­side of casu­al the­o­ret­i­cal con­jec­ture. Nonethe­less, I fail to see why my own rel­a­tive dig­i­tal inep­ti­tude should lead me to embrace a ‘hold the fort’ men­tal­i­ty about the cur­rent state of the human­i­ties. Just as the cul­tur­al turn of the 1970s enriched human­ist inquiry by mov­ing it away from the staid and sup­pos­ed­ly apo­lit­i­cal method­ol­o­gy of New Crit­i­cal analy­sis, the human­i­ties of today might be revi­tal­ized via a dig­i­tal turn.

By at least pro­vid­ing stu­dents with the option of learn­ing var­i­ous dig­i­tal tech­niques, human­i­ties depart­ments could offer under­grad­u­ates both an instant­ly mar­ketable skill set and an enriched schol­ar­ly expe­ri­ence. How might this work from a prax­is-ori­ent­ed per­spec­tive? Well, a stu­dent work­ing on an essay about James Bald­win, for exam­ple, could learn how to devel­op a sophis­ti­cat­ed mul­ti­me­dia doc­u­ment incor­po­rat­ing tex­tu­al analy­sis with data min­ing tech­niques and video inter­views with Bald­win scholars.

While crit­ics of the dig­i­tal human­i­ties will undoubt­ed­ly argue that neolib­er­al-mind­ed uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors will sim­ply use the field to trans­form the human­i­ties into cor­po­rate train­ing grounds, no self-pro­fessed dig­i­tal human­ist I’ve ever encoun­tered has expressed any inter­est in pro­vid­ing stu­dents with nar­row voca­tion­al train­ing. As an edu­ca­tion­al field, the dig­i­tal human­i­ties would inte­grate tra­di­tion­al human­ist ped­a­gogy with tech­no­log­i­cal learn­ing, there­by pro­vid­ing stu­dents with the option of tak­ing var­i­ous spe­cial­ized dig­i­tal human­i­ties cours­es that might be offered either intrade­part­men­tal­ly or inter­de­part­men­tal­ly through­out the human­i­ties. Thus, tra­di­tion­al cours­es – like African Amer­i­can His­to­ry and Shake­speare – could be offered along­side cours­es focus­ing on var­i­ous the­o­ret­i­cal and applied dig­i­tal human­i­ties techniques.

In short, this inte­gra­tion of human­ist learn­ing and dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy would not sim­ply be con­cerned with train­ing stu­dents for cor­po­rate employ­ment. After all, even entry-lev­el posi­tions in social jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions and non-prof­it NGOs now require that prospec­tive employ­ees pos­sess hard tech­no­log­i­cal skills that will allow them to hit the ground run­ning. Just as adjuncts and teach­ing assis­tants should have the right to expect fair com­pen­sa­tion for their labor, grad­u­ates of human­i­ties pro­grams should have the right to be edu­ca­tion­al­ly equipped to secure gain­ful employ­ment after spend­ing three to four years of their lives and tens of thou­sands of dol­lars pur­su­ing a degree. If human­i­ties schol­ars con­tin­ue to par­rot out the ques­tion­able line that a uni­ver­si­ty edu­ca­tion should bear no rela­tion to con­cerns about employ­a­bil­i­ty, then they will do so to the increas­ing detri­ment of their field as a whole.

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Andrew Urie is an inde­pen­dent inter­dis­ci­pli­nary schol­ar and writer who recent­ly com­plet­ed his Ph.D. in Social and Polit­i­cal Thought. His dis­ser­ta­tion, Turn­ing Japan­ese: Japaniza­tion Anx­i­ety, Japan-Bash­ing, and Reac­tionary White Amer­i­can Het­eropa­tri­archy in Rea­gan-Bush Era Hol­ly­wood Cin­e­ma, was nom­i­nat­ed for York University’s Best Dis­ser­ta­tion Prize.

Spe­cial­iz­ing in Amer­i­can Stud­ies and British Cul­tur­al Stud­ies, he has pub­lished in Dia­logue: The Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Jour­nal of Pop­u­lar Cul­ture and Ped­a­gogy; Fast Cap­i­tal­ism; Amer­i­cana: The Jour­nal of Amer­i­can Pop­u­lar Cul­ture 1900 to Present; Pop­Mat­ters; The Bluffs Mon­i­tor; the quint: an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary quar­ter­ly from the north; Pop Cul­ture and The­ol­o­gyJour­nal of Con­tem­po­rary Dra­ma in Eng­lish (forth­com­ing); Jour­nal of Inte­grat­ed Stud­ies (forth­com­ing); and A Place for Film (forth­com­ing).