Restructuring Humanities

If your last trip to the video store taught you anything, it’s that the cashier made a serious mistake by pursuing an undergraduate degree in Philosophy. Sure, she spends her days near DVD copies of “Waking Life,” but we imagine she’s probably unsatisfied.

House of Smart

House of Smart

She’s not the only one that can’t get no satisfaction. In the space between Xzibit’s West Coast Customs and Lil Jon’s East Side Boyz, graduates from the Humanities lament their decisions to study subjects they were actually interested in, as they’ve found themselves with few marketable skills. Some have been funneled into graduate programs, but, for many, those require superhuman devotion to obscure, highly-specialized topics.

A liberal arts program always succeeds in the sense that it exposes students to the world and helps them think about it in new ways. Unfortunately, two structural problems in particular prevent the Humanities from producing even greater benefits:

First, departments have been separated from each other. We’ve divided academics just as we’ve divided labor.

Second, application has lagged. Departments often produce a dearth of practical, actionable research and outreach.

These two weaknesses play on each other. Specialization often produces specialized language, which further separates departments. A lack of practical application, on the other hand, means that your findings in Political Science mean little to me over in Philosophy.

Departmental segregation, aside from being influenced by the division of labor, reflects historical limitations in how we handled information. According to Professor David Weinberger, print – formerly the primary medium for information – had characteristics that shaped how we conceive of knowledge, truth and, of course, information itself. A book is self-contained, it’s limited in length and it’s static. In the same way, a department in the humanities is self-contained, it’s elite and it’s resistant to revision.

But, now, our capacity for information has been revolutionized. The Internet, the new medium, actually rejects containment, permission and stasis. A book on the Civil War would give me a concentrated dose of information and analysis from some expert(s), and, five years from now, that book will stay say the same thing.

Instead, let’s say I go to Wikipedia, where information is networked. The improvement seems almost exponential. The Civil War article links to innumerable related topics, it’s collaborated on by hundreds of contributors/editors and, when new information emerges, it reflects it quickly.

I don’t mean to say simply “do it like Wikipedia,” but rather I want to show that this networked system seems generally superior for advancing our understanding. The real world cannot perfectly copy the Internet, but it can at least resemble it.

And what about the second problem – practical application? Specialization clearly exacerbates these woes and maybe even underlies them. I wonder too if it could be a leftover of the Greek philosophical tradition, which saw knowledge seeking as leisurely and worthy for its own sake. Knowledge was a realm for those who had free time, and truth was treated as an internal possession.

This conception makes no sense now. We believe, as a society, that education should be available to all, and, in practice, information has been democratized and externalized (Weinberger again).

If it’s going to be beneficial for society, education must be reformed. History has intrinsic value, and studying it for its own sake is OK, but that should be secondary. Its primary purpose should be to help us. So, for instance, we could organize departments around problems, as Professor Mark Taylor of Columbia proposed in the New York Times. Imagine a water shortage department featuring collaboration by environmental scientists, political scientists, law students, anthropologists and so on.

I only agree with Taylor this far, as the rest of his commentary treats the university as if it was a failing brain factory that should get an IMF makeover (i.e. a kick to the groin). Of the rest of his proposals, some are irrelevant to my topic, and some are appalling. For instance, he says permanent departments should be abolished, retirement should be enforced and tenure should be abolished. Well, we shouldn’t abolish an existing department unless somehow we can show it lacks sufficient distinctness. His other two ideas, mandating retirement and striking tenure, would surely injure academic freedom.

I imagine that problem-oriented departments would complement, rather than replace, and their ultimate goal would be benefit, not profit. The suggestion that we must define benefit as profit perverts the ideal of free inquiry and threatens to transform universities into corporate auxiliaries. If anything, we should point these departments toward problems that don’t have profitable solutions. They are the problems that need attention.

Short of hopefully solving some of these social problems, these proposed departments should enable future video store philosophers (err, “film” store philosophers) to develop a more widely-applicable skill set, all while gaining experience with other disciplines, other students and, of course, the challenges of the real world.


  1. Chris

    I’m sure there is too much silo’ing going on in higher education, but I’m not so sure it’s hurting their ability to tackle the worlds non-profit related problems. Universities do have “centers” and the like which are dedicated to the sort of thing you’re discussing.

    I would, however, like to see a blurring of the lines between graduate and undergraduate and the different disciplines therein. There’s no reason why sophomores shouldn’t be able to help centers in their missions regardless of their academic track. This would also give them real world experience that could help them find a job later on.

  2. Clint


    I’m not saying universities don’t devote time/resources to non-profit problems. I’m saying that, if Taylor had his way, then those sorts of problems would likely be ignored in favor of profitable ones.

    Blurring the lines between graduate and undergraduate is interesting, never really thought about it. How would that be structured?

  3. Jordan

    Undergraduates, if they qualify, can usually take graduate-level courses at many universities. As to getting rid of departments, I disagree – they are the home of the experts, those who have traveled into a subject in-depth and now give away parcels of that knowledge to the students. It’s up to the students and university to create a curriculum that allows cross-pollination of disciplines and development of connections b/w the department to create a larger intellectual framework.

    I think universities are what you make of them. For people wanting to develop a specific skill set to fit cog-like into some industrial/service capacity, then go to community college. I stick by the original idea of university as a place of broad inquiry and intellectual development, not as a job creation factory. What will distinguish you from your other cohorts when you come out of university is not what you studied but what you created from those studies. Did you become so passionate about a subject that you started a blog or organization? Do you have work or volunteering experience during college?

    Also, don’t forget that the American university is also a social space and one of the first stepping stones for young people beyond parent supervision or the prison-like atmosphere of high school.

    If anything needs reform it’s the secondary education system.

  4. Chris

    “Blurring the lines between graduate and undergraduate is interesting, never really thought about it. How would that be structured?”
    What’s really the point of the line in the first place? Graduate programs in the humanities are usually a stepping stone to teaching. Just abolish the entire concept, and require a teaching test/tryout for future professors that includes a review of their scholarly work on whatever subject they want to teach.

    I don’t quite understand your defense of departments. Specialized professors would still exist, we just wouldn’t separate students into archaic categories of study.

  5. Jordan

    I assumed Clint was discussing departmental segregation from the professorial side not the student side. On the student side, I would agree that the dividing of students by broad stroke labels (Journalism in your case, International Studies in mine) is rather silly when education in those fields (and others) is regimented than in others. I guess your argument is for students who are part of Chris & Clint College would just be part of the college and not subdivided into departments? I would agree with that. I don’t know many HR people that would though – those who hire are still stuck on having the appropriate labels and keywords rather than the actual demonstrable skills that people have. How would CCC graduates distinguish themselves in a job market?

    I could also be misinterpreting the whole argument due to a caffeine crash… 😉

  6. Chris

    You’re right on the money about my idea…I live to frustrate HR peeps.

  7. Clint


    “As to getting rid of departments, I disagree – they are the home of the experts, those who have traveled into a subject in-depth and now give away parcels of that knowledge to the students.”

    I agree completely. If we imagine a problem-oriented department, say Taylor’s Water program, it must combine the expertise of people in specific fields. In other words, permanent departments MUST exist for there to be any expertise in a particular area, say politics. Otherwise no one has any specialized knowledge and the collaborative efforts become weaker.


    I think there’s something to be said for a general “liberal arts” education for undergraduates. Maybe that could be the initial level of distinction? Once completed, grads/undergrads could be in the same category, but classified by year of study

  8. Clint

    (Still not entirely sold on that idea, though) 🙂

  9. Daimao

    I agree with Jordan about reforming the secondary education system. People shouldn’t feel like they escaped from prison when they finished high school, neither physically nor mentally. More importantly, the standard curriculum needs a complete overhaul, probably on the national level, and not just state by state.

  10. Chris

    Yep. And moving away from an economy that is completely geared toward college graduates would put more focus back on earlier education.