Why do a PhD in the humanities?

Why do a PhD in the Humanities? This is a question that has plagued the pages of publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education for several years now. Generally, the tone of the articles addressing this question has been gloomy, with several of them dismissing the idea outright.  Indeed, the rhetoric informing some of them is akin to “You’d be better off sticking your face in a whirring woodchipper than embarking on the madness of a PhD in that field.”

Although I do take issue with this tone, I do not want to suggest that I think every criticism or concern articulated about the state of the Humanities in the larger university system in the Anglo-American world is unwarranted. Anxiety about the state of the academic job market, the state of chronically exploited casual labour, or the state of hostility the Humanities regularly face in larger media and public policy is not mere crackpottery. All of these issues are real, and deserve our attention.

It must be acknowledged that some universities and governments have introduced massive cuts in Humanities funding, and that such cuts are impeding the efforts of faculty and staff to produce the kinds of education and training that students deserve. In some cases, these cuts are temporary, and are a result of a loss of revenue/endowments/ investments in the wake of the global financial crisis of a few years ago. In other cases, the cuts are a way to seize upon an opportunity—to undermine the valuable, even crucial role the Humanities play in educating students both for scholarly work and for work outside the academy. The Humanities, in broad terms, help to produce an educated citizenry, one which is better able to distinguish form from content, thought from rhetoric, ideology from idea. Certain elements in Western society at this point in the 21st century are not at all keen on such a citizenry.

As the relative collapse of informed public discourse (at least, in the mainstream) has shown us, an educated, informed populace is not guaranteed by the relative availability of a university education in the Humanities. Many of us have felt the exasperation of watching subtlety and complexity, and attempts to be fair and balanced in weighing an issue, blowtorched out of discussions and comment threads, as they descend, burnt and pitted, into name-calling and binary thinking. But this does not, in my opinion, mean that the Humanities have failed us. Rather, it should raise the question, “If this is the state of public discourse when this is our brain on critical, Humanities-driven thinking, what would it be like if we cut the Humanities out of our public brain entirely?” It may be a question too sad to insist upon, but were I to attempt to answer it, I would say that if we did manage to eliminate the Humanities, we would be, as a culture, in dire straits indeed. But when we are frustrated or even angered by articles that are clearly written to prompt readers to respond in certain ways or to produce hits on a website, when we walk away from such pieces and their discussion threads understandably shaking our heads, we should remember something that a Humanities education brings front-and-centre to our attention: Neither learning nor teaching happens exclusively in the classroom, or while we are in school—and we are not always taught things to unbridled good effect. When we feel dispirited or exhausted by the sheer number of horrible injustices in the world, and knowing about these injustices simply makes us want to turn our backs on our culture, our communities, our crises, we should recall this: we are being taught to think this way. It is an example of what George Gerbner called “Mean World Syndrome”—if we are permitted to see nothing but violence, hatred, intolerance, and cruel glee around us, then we will come to the conclusion that the world holds nothing but these things.  We are being trained to be afraid, to be angry, to feel impotent, and, finally, to just not give a damn. That’s exactly what we are supposed to learn.

A Humanities education—undergraduate or graduate—is an invitation to think differently, in different ways, and not just about a universe of scholarly disciplines. This is one of the threats a Humanities education poses to those who wish to snuff out the opportunity to pursue one: critical thinking, a supple mind capable of inviting and producing complex, subtle modes of thought, undercuts the you’re-either-for-us-or-against-us kind of mental jingoism whose effects are so garishly evident today. But discussion of the Humanities itself has, in several quarters, now fallen under the spell of “Mean World Syndrome”—with those who claim that the world is currently too lean and hungry to require ornamental fripperies like the Humanities—and to the conviction that to study them at an advanced level is ultimately to consign oneself to living in a cardboard box by a superhighway. What is even more regrettable is that such arguments are starting to emanate from within the Humanities themselves—arguments replete with dire predictions about the fate of the field and those who study it. For me, such arguments are just as false, just as dangerous, and just as anti-intellectual when they come from within the academy as when they come from outside it. Another way of putting it would be this: Why would being more ignorant, or less sophisticated, less thoughtful, and less inflected in our thinking, especially in a moment of global crisis, be a good thing?

So what of the academic job market? Frankly, I would say that it has, with the exception of a few brief bright spots, been a difficult slog for the past forty years or so. There were any number of hires in the late 60s and early 70s—we’ve all heard the stories of people putting a one-page application under a department chair’s door on Friday, only to wake up Monday morning with a tenure-track job—but this golden age was a short one. As the decades have rolled by, expectations have grown, and have grown largely as a means of weeding out as many candidates as possible. Does this mean that doing a PhD in the Humanities is therefore a fool’s errand? Well, the blunt answer is that it depends upon what you expect from it. If you expect that you will, upon completion of the PhD, immediately be granted a tenure-track job, then you are most likely going to be disappointed. That said, you should remember that you certainly won’t get a tenure-track job in a university without one, either. Different doctoral programs produce different results: some can boast a placement rate of 40%-50% in tenure-track jobs; some programs have a slightly higher placement rate; many others are lower. But it’s just as important to take into account that a solid—and increasing–percentage of people pursuing PhDs decide, at some point in their degrees, not to pursue an academic career; in other words, they make a positive decision to build another career with the many skills they have acquired. Yes, some people flunk or drop out of PhD programs (but still have MAs and a lot of useful skills to bring to the job market); yes, some people do everything “right”—they are in good programs, have great grades, a smart, engaging thesis project, teaching experience, peer-reviewed publications, and have presented conference papers—but the tenure-track job remains infuriatingly elusive; yes, the job market is often hellish. But ultimately, you must ask yourself: “Am I prepared to take on the difficult task of a PhD simply as a form of job training, or am I thinking about the larger rewards? Am I prepared to consider that this training actually gives me the ability to ‘think outside the box,’ as the saying goes, and that I can turn those skills towards the important question of my own desire?” A PhD not only gives you skills that can help you become a working academic, but it also gives you a set of eminently transferable skills that will be sought and welcomed in any number of work environments—work environments that will respect and reward you.

So the question is not, perhaps, “Why should I do a PhD?” but rather, “How will a PhD create as many different avenues as possible for me to do as many of the things I want to do as possible?” And the answer is to think about how your PhD—not just your area of specialization within it (though you shouldn’t exclude or ignore that element, either), but also the skills it will develop in you as a researcher, as a writer, as an analyst and critical thinker, as a teacher, as an articulate and concise distiller and presenter of complex ideas—will be attractive to potential employers. You will come out of the degree able to do things that many other people cannot—valuable, important things. Moreover, when thinking about what you want, you should be using your skills—critical and methodological skills–to work out just what those attractive strengths are, and how they dovetail into possible careers. Don’t be shy about asking your advisors about this, either—a number of established academics are turning more of their attention to helping their students see just what strengths they have developed in this respect. (This is because the academy itself has come to realise that consigning a vast cohort of talented, highly-educated young people to the category of “loser” for “failing” to secure full-time academic employment is not only intellectually lazy, but also ethically bankrupt.) That said, in terms of the gloomy prognostications about the academic job market, I am often struck by how often some graduate students will swallow without question or suspicion the most dire, the most miserable, the most brutal arguments against that to which they’ve devoted the last several years of their working lives. My response to that is, “Why is it that if you were reading, say, Hegel, James Joyce, Dostoevsky, Homi Bhabha, Woolf, John Rawls, Shakespeare, Spengler, Dante, Roberto Bolaño, Daniel Dennett, Max Weber, Judith Butler, Mallarmé, Noam Chomsky, Clarice Lispector, Marshall McLuhan, Kathy Acker, Bakhtin, David Harvey, Deleuze, Eric Hobsbawm, Hal Foster, Adorno, de Beauvoir, Rey Chow, or Žižek, all of your critical faculties, the phalanx of theoretical methodologies you have at your command, would be brought to bear in your understanding and critique them—but when you’re essentially handed a cranky, paranoiac argument that says ‘You’re all screwed!’ you believe it without hesitation?”

Try thinking about what you’re being told. Try embracing that essential element of a Humanities education by addressing the question that begins this piece with the rigour you would use to answer a critical question about your academic work. You may find that this yields some truly exciting, surprising, and productive results. You may even discover what you actually want, instead of what you’re expected to accept.