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Oh, the Humanities! - The Ex-Communicator

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November 20th, 2010


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10:31 am - Oh, the Humanities!
There's a lot of talk at the moment about which degree subjects are valuable, and whether the Humanities are an indulgence which should be the preserve of the rich. My kids have just started studying Biomedical Science and History respectively, and my degree is Philosophy. In each case the choice followed enthusiasm rather than calculation of advantage, and I think this must be the right way. You can not and must not direct yourself towards something you do not love.

OK I make an exception for people like my friend Fatima who are sponsored from a developing country, and must bring back a particular skill needed by their nation.

I spent much of the last week in workshops with people who had developed the curriculum and exams in ICT. At one point they discussed - to general derision - the sad fact that many ICT teachers do not have first degrees in computing. I kept my mouth shut.

However I will say that I think a degree in Philosophy has been an unmitigated good for me. I think the skills I developed have enriched my life, and they have also made me more effective at every job I have ever done - and I've done quite a wide range of work in the thirty years since I graduated. Most of the work I have done has involved quickly grasping and then communicating, and generally what I am grasping and transmitting is some body of material which simply did not exist in its current form at the time I was studying.

In a moving world students need to bring away with them the skills and confidence to approach critically, to penetrate, and to convey. These skills have been perpetually useful to me. Conversely you can not equip students with the body of knowledge they will require, because it does not exist; it will grow new in the future.

Some people also say that a Humanities degree has a low status in the job market. This has not been my experience. For example in the last week - this is literally true - my publisher asked me what my degree was in. When I told him he said 'Oh, you are smart'. This is typical, and it's a very useful reaction when you are trying to get work or contracts.

In short, I can not speak for the Humanities in general, but my degree was good for me. I was not able to pursue postgraduate work because even in those days that was for rich kids only. The degree on its own was helpful though.

(22 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:fjm
Date:November 20th, 2010 10:36 am (UTC)
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I did grad work but my MA was paid for by a charity, and I worked full time throughout it, and my PhD. Even now, the discrimination that involved continues to affect my career.
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From:communicator
Date:November 20th, 2010 10:39 am (UTC)
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There was discrimination against you because you studied part time? I would have thought - but from a position of complete ignorance - that it was an even more impressive achievement in terms of hard work and mental balancing.

ETA - and coming back to read this, I suppose it is that Tory thing where anything achieved by work is inferior to that achieved by wealth. My feelings are the opposite.

Edited at 2010-11-20 12:05 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:glitterboy1
Date:November 20th, 2010 12:18 pm (UTC)
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I wonder whether your friend Fatima becomes less of an exception, if you think of 'something you love' in terms of 'something for which you have a real inner motivation'. But I think you're right: a discipline chosen by some objective calculation of 'advantage', and with no enthusiasm, seems likely to be good for neither the student nor, ultimately, the institution at which they may under-perform or even drop out.

In recruiting people to work in (my area of) IT, I'm quite likely to *prefer* someone whose first degree is in something else. Some of the specific material that I learnt may not be used, but, like you, I think that the skills from my degree in languages and linguistics are genuinely and directly relevant to what I do now.
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From:communicator
Date:November 20th, 2010 12:31 pm (UTC)
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I met a wonderful guy this week from Dominica, which is a very small island without much money. One young person a year is chosen and sponsored to go to University. One year that was him. In return he has spent his whole life on the island, and has had a terrific impact on the life of the country - was asked to be their ambassador to the UN at one point.
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From:happytune
Date:November 20th, 2010 04:42 pm (UTC)
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That's a humbling story.
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From:nineveh_uk
Date:November 20th, 2010 06:46 pm (UTC)
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I think the inner motion is the key, although inner motion can be something other than love of subject. There is some evidence that students studying for external motivations ("my parents thought X was a good thing to study") actually perform less well, which is perhaps not surprising.
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From:spacefall
Date:November 20th, 2010 12:48 pm (UTC)
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I can't imagine a world in which it isn't good to have people study philosophy. 'sides, degrees are stressful enough without doing something you have a genuine passion for....as you say ,many of the finer details will become obsolete, but if you're going to learn how to research, communicate, plan projects, etc you may as well be doing it while studying something you have a genuine interest in.

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From:communicator
Date:November 20th, 2010 01:05 pm (UTC)
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Plus in a field like Philosophy or History there is a body of material to support that study, of the highest quality, dating back millennia. There is no way to replicate that, it represents the fruit of humanity IMHO.
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From:spacefall
Date:November 20th, 2010 03:26 pm (UTC)
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Heh, as an artist I want to add making thoughts into non-language physical things too.
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From:several_bees
Date:November 20th, 2010 03:30 pm (UTC)
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Yes, I started out trying to do an arts/law degree (where you study for about 4.5-5 years and have two degrees at the end), but dropped law after a year, because it just wasn't interesting to me; I'd only applied out of a vague sense that arts degrees weren't good for anything.

I do think there is often a sense that humanities degrees are less desirable, or at least demonstrate less competence. The fact that I felt obliged to apply for arts/law in the first plac is evidence, I guess - people told me off for not being more ambitious than a straightforward humanities degree. And I've had a few people, even friends, saying or implying that my PhD (which was in creative writing, partly critical and partly practice-based) isn't "real".
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From:communicator
Date:November 20th, 2010 10:51 pm (UTC)
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I can't believe it! I mean, obviously I believe it, but it really pisses me off. Well they'll be sorry when we live in a world of nothing but accountants and lawyers that's all I can say.
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From:sheenaghpugh
Date:November 20th, 2010 03:40 pm (UTC)
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It makes me laugh when people are so convinced they know all humanities degrees are Mickey Mouse and don't lead to jobs. I taught on a creative writing degree that had a bloody good record in leading to jobs, because in order to pass, you needed both to write convincing copy and argue the case for your writing in workshops, and in which job is being able to communicate one's meaning clearly, persuasively and effectively in speech and writing not an advantage?
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From:kalypso_v
Date:November 20th, 2010 08:40 pm (UTC)
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Latin prose composition was probably the only useful training I ever had for rewriting copy, which is a large part of what I do now. It got me to underlying structure rather than the specific words.
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From:communicator
Date:November 20th, 2010 10:49 pm (UTC)
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Unless it becomes some sort of awful self-fulfilling prophecy. But no, I simply refuse to believe that people will abandon arts and humanities for marketing and HR studies or whatever we are 'supposed' to be teaching these days
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From:matgb
Date:November 20th, 2010 10:50 pm (UTC)
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Thank you. I've had the same discussion more'n once recently, and you've put it better than me in many ways.

I know I benefit from my politics degree, regardless of whether I'm doing a political campaign, IT marketing, tourism marketing or just thinking things through. Politics and Economics would actually be a pretty good degree for anyone thinking of going into a marketing career. Whereas a lobbyist would probably be better served by a specialism.

I also know people who've done specialist degrees, like Law, which can lead you into a clear career, who've not gone on in that career and then suffered, a specific degree can cause more problems if it's not what you want or you can't get entry.

Learning how to analyse, research, think things through from multiple perspectives, try to understand all arguments, is hardly a negative talent. I've met far too many with specialist degrees who can't see past their own specialism at all.
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From:communicator
Date:November 20th, 2010 10:57 pm (UTC)
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I wonder if in the future it will be harder for people to have a 'career' (as I laughably term it) like mine: that is, jumping from job to job as need arises. It will be sad if people are expected to choose a niche at 18, do a vocational degree which equips them for nothing but that niche, and then stick in that groove for fifty years. What a drag.
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From:matgb
Date:November 20th, 2010 11:03 pm (UTC)
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That's one of the principle points in favour of generalist degrees. I've switched career three times since I graduated.

Paradoxically, I'm strongly considering specialising, as I'm really enjoy working with young kids and I can probably get a funded primary PGCE.

But even then, I can pull out and do other stuff, I know I can administrate, market or analyse just as well as I can deal with young kids. But if I'd just done a specific course, I'd be stuck.

Some people are very happy with specialsim, especially scientists or engineers, but not me, and not a large number of other people that benefit froma bit of everything and a lot of thinking.
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From:storme
Date:November 20th, 2010 11:28 pm (UTC)
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Hm, weirdly, I studied for a degree which is notionally specific to a career goal--librarianship--but I've never gone into that field as a result. I don't think I was ever really planning to follow a career in librarianship, but it sounded interesting.

I note that despite not finishing said degree, even having studied for *half* of it has been an incredibly useful thing to have on my CV--it certainly contributed to getting my current job in IT, for a start.

(and now I get to make decisions on hiring people, and have gleefully hired someone with a classics degree over people with more 'appropriate' IT-based degrees because he was a much better candidate at interview.)
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From:communicator
Date:November 21st, 2010 08:40 am (UTC)
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That is unusual. I But I think sometimes youngsters don't know what they want to do - I certainly never had a clue, at any stage of my life, what i was going to do next.
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From:katlinel
Date:November 21st, 2010 01:23 pm (UTC)
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I spent much of the last week in workshops with people who had developed the curriculum and exams in ICT. At one point they discussed - to general derision - the sad fact that many ICT teachers do not have first degrees in computing. I kept my mouth shut.

This reminds of the debate that used to pop up, at least semi-annually, in tech writing circles about whether you needed to be a subject matter expert in order to write good and successful technical manuals. I tend towards no as I think most reasonably bright people can pick up the subject matter and it is the writing and communication skills which are much harder to learn and implement. There are possibly certain exceptions (nuclear reactors, say) but in the computer hardware and software fields, which included operating systems and networking in my case, picking up the subject knowledge wasn't the hardest part of the job. I was always complimented by the experts on how well I did at that. And very few of those experts could do the same. Strangely, it was upper management, and the bean counters, who took the approach that what I did was done merely by cutting and pasting information from specifications - the experts recognised the difference between their documents and mine and appreciated it.

And I think that's related to a fact-based, utilitarian approach to education that I see being lauded or seen as the only worthwhile approach to education. I haven't followed the arguments on Crooked Timber but I've seen some elsewhere about self-indulgent arts/humanities degrees and it's stuff that I've heard all my life. Most of the vitriol seems to be directed at media studies these days, but the arguments still have the same attitudes underpinning them. It's the attitude which says, often loudly, that anyone can read a book (since I did English Literature and Language as my first degree, that's the one I heard) or watch a tv programme or film, and make up things to say about it. I think there's a similar approach to philosophy, too, that anyone can make stuff up about humankind and the world in which we live. And it's a failure to recognise anything rigorous that be in those critical responses to literature, media or philosophy, as well as any use. However, my critical skills, although never asked about in job interviews, unlike my IT degree, were definitely the ones that helped me succeed in the IT field.

So these comments, dismissing the humanities and their value, to everyone, whether in job-related success or other ways, make me both sad and angry.

I think there's a huge value in studying something you love. I wish their was more recognition of the benefit of this for all, not just for the individual, which is where the self-indulgent bit is perceived to lie. Denigrating it as self-indulgent is to place a higher value on the unhappiness of the individual than on their happiness.
[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:November 21st, 2010 04:51 pm (UTC)
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Philistines (eg Mr M Gove) think education is about getting facts into your head. If you learned x y and z at 18, you're done. No more learning required or possible.

Also they think experience is about having encountered particular knowledge (say of a software package) before, not about developing flexible skills for finding out.

Anyway, rant mode disengaged before I blow a gasket.
[User Picture]
From:katlinel
Date:November 21st, 2010 06:21 pm (UTC)
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And another thing (one which I hope won't be gasket-blowing): why do those who think that studying arts or humanities subjects out of interest and passion is self-indulgent also not think that studying physics, chemistry, or geology and then becoming an accountant, or taking any job where the degree subject matter is most likely to be irrelevant to the job, is equally self-indulgent?

Having encounterd particular knowledge, like that of a software package, is only really useful for getting an interview for a job when the interview criteria depend on certain boxes being ticked. It is no prediction of ability to do a job well.

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