I loved A.P. English in high school. It was, by far, my favorite subject. The teacher did a good job preparing us for the A.P. English test, but that isn’t what made the class so wonderful. The class gave me the opportunity to read a wide variety of literature. I loved it. For the first time in my life, I studied something I found fun: not a chore or a drudgery or something on the to-do list, but actual fun! We read Wuthering Heights and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Black Boy and The Acorn People and The Stranger and many more pieces over my senior year, including several short stories.
We also read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. One night I had a very vivid dream about that book. In my dream, I was already at the college I had chosen to pursue a degree in Electrical Engineering. And I was walking to its massive library stacks (third-largest academic library in the country, mind you!) to spend a weekend in that gargantuan museum of letters and produce the most wondrous, most deeply researched critique of Sir Gawain the world had ever read. I woke up, so excited to start college, to study literature and make full use of those stacks to write the most magnificent literary criticisms that would challenge the most discerning scholarly minds the world has ever known.
I never visited the University stacks. I was an engineering major at a top-three engineering school. We did lots of problems and many lab reports over hundreds of hours and turned them in to be graded. None of them involved visiting the stacks.
As a student in the Campus Honors Program, I did get the opportunity to take a low-enrollment, highly specialized liberal arts course every semester. My favorite was a course that spent a semester studying Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It explained that science sometimes isn’t as scientific as it aims to be, that politics and bias inevitably enter and color which findings get released to the public and which get shelved. The course identified what fuels those biases and allowed us time to ponder how to respond. Had I not taken that course, it might have taken me a lot longer to realize that science sometimes isn’t as scientific as we would like.
Another of my favorite courses was a general education course called “History of Urban Popular Music”. An ethno-musicologist who specialized in the music of indigenous peoples of Peru and Zimbabwe traced the history of country and blues in the United States and connected it to the emergence of rock and roll. He helped me see how the plight of farmers and city migrants during the Reconstruction and the Great Depression influenced the sounds that were copied by my then-big-haired guitar heros. He later explained how “Every Breath You Take” was the greatest pop music composition of all time because of the unparalleled and effortless tension it generates between its major and minor sequences. Every time I’ve heard that song since, I ask if he was right.
I didn’t land my first job because I took those courses. None of my interviews asked me whether I agreed with Thomas Kuhn’s account of how scientific ideas gain traction, or whether the high-lonesome harmonies of the southeast can be heard in a modern guitar solo. And surely none of my interviews asked me if the Green Knight had gone too easy on Gawain for his near-deceit. To be honest, I don’t think these courses have anything at all to do with my current level of job stability or salary.
But they certainly have influenced my ability to put things in context, my vision to recognize the limits of my way of looking at things, my sense that there are nuances and subtleties my constrained analysis has pushed to the side. And perhaps most importantly, it has helped me realize that my work concerns and influences an infinitesimally small part of what is and can be known. That is a humbling notion, to be sure, but one that brings peace and perspective. At the very least, it helps me compartmentalize my career from my life.
I miss having to study the humanities. I miss studying things that appeal to my heart as well as my head. I miss looking at life through a microscope that isn’t focused directly on a professional cocoon that keeps the beauties and sorrows and passions and high-lonesome voices of the outside at bay because they can’t be expressed perfectly mathematically and simulated efficiently in code.
The focus of higher education today, whether it has been imposed by champions of a consumerist culture or created by administrators anxious to address their criticisms, emphasizes the professions. Supposedly, they deliver educational bang for the buck, and they have the average starting salary and job placement figures to prove it. I teach in a so-called professional program – Computer Science – even though I regard the field as just another lens through which to look at the world and not as a job preparation exercise. Computer Science is one of the academic golden children, the fields that pay the bills and give students supposedly what they came to college to gain. Our enrollments have skyrocketed, and we prepare almost one-hundred graduates every year, making us one of most prolific graduate-producers on campus. We produce an impressive number of high-quality, expensive widgets for the university.
But do these widgets know Sir Gawain’s story, and how he conceivably might have been the one watched by a creepy and vengeful Green Knight in Gordon Sumner’s epic battle between major and minor chord progressions in 1983? Do they appreciate the fanciful world beyond the code they write, the networks they construct, the data they secure? Do they understand that their work has political dimensions that may exaggerate or moderate its value in ways they cannot control?
I hope so, but it’s getting harder to hold onto that hope. Every student deserves to study the Humanities, but universities aren’t investing in them as they should. Retiring professors aren’t being replaced. Shrinking departments are being moved to make room for growing professional ones. Adjunct instructors teach an increasing number of sections of general education courses. And the extreme cost of college debt discourages students from studying these fields because, when they look at their potential salaries, they or their parents conclude they can’t afford to study what inspires them.
If these trends continue, I fear no one will get to use those library stacks.
The so-called non-professional fields have to solve this problem themselves. The trends working against them are too embedded for a benevolent savior to swing a sword against them. Although they shouldn’t have to defend themselves, the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences must remind people who shouldn’t need to be reminded of their relevance of their unmatched value. One way to do this is to partner with specific professional programs to provide innovative programs that give students the opportunity to study both their chosen profession and how to situate it in the context of a human life. For example, a number of institutions are starting to offer degrees that combine Computer Science of Data Science with other fields. Although the phrase “Digital Humanities” is a bit of a cliched buzzword at this point, the purpose of these programs is to explore a “traditional” field in “traditional” ways, but using modern tools and algorithmic problem-solving insights. Students explore their interest deeply, deftly, and creatively, and they also acquire professional skills that, viewed cynically but legitimately, give them a great insurance policy for securing their first job.
Despite immense pressures to deliver jobs to students paying top dollar to attend their classes, universities must generously support more than just their professional programs. Living a good life requires compartmentalizing one’s career, no matter how enjoyable or fulfilling that career may be.A good life requires a little Sir Gawain. For most people, the University is the last place a student can gain that ability to see life beyond the suit in a formal way. Let’s make sure we academicians continue to give that to them. Otherwise, we’re not really giving them what they paid for.