BOSTON PUBLIC RADIO
11:03 am
Wed July 2, 2014

Don't Shred Your English Degree Just Yet, Says Harvard Historian Nancy Koehn

Are English departments on the fast track to extinction?
Are English departments on the fast track to extinction?
Credit Juan Antonio Flores Segal / Flickr Creative Commons

In a world where you can make a cool million on an app that does, for all intents and purposes, just about nothing, who wants to spend four years and $200,000 lugging around a copy of Middlemarch to get an English degree? 

As it turns out, fewer and fewer people. English, history, philosophy, and anthropology departments around the nation are atrophying as students flock to more lucrative fields like science, technology, and engineering: at Stanford, for example, the humanities department encompasses 45% of undergraduate faculty, yet attracts a mere 15% of the students. The shrinking numbers, beyond striking fear in the hearts of serious, tweed sportcoat-clad academics everywhere, have some asking: are the humanities going extinct? And, in a changing economy, should they?

Harvard historian Nancy Koehn takes issue with the assertion. Humanities departments are faced with an onslaught of challenges from all sides, to be sure -- not the least of which is how to stay relevant in a world that is both increasingly digital and increasingly far removed from the experiences of the Dead White Men who wrote what we now consider to be the discipline's canonical texts. But the real value of a degree in the humanities, Koehn says, rises above all that.

"The humanities are not about precious texts. They are not about an elitist idea of what's important and how to maintain a tight elite hand on the reign of power," says Koehn. "They're about how to live a good life. A life of integrity, a life of practicable education, how to think, how to express those thoughts clearly to your fellow people, how to find common ground among your fellow creatures."

A fine and honorable creed, to be sure. But, as more financially-strapped students may point out, no one has ever paid off their student loans with a check from their "integrity" account. On that note, Koehn is insistent that an undergraduate degree in the humanities should not be a cause for distress for job-seekers (nor cause to dump your history degree out of the frame and directly into the garbage.)

Case in point: in 2008, Koehn attended the centennial celebration at the Harvard Business School, which featured a host of successful and famous CEOs like Bill Gates. This rarified panel was asked what they thought were the most attractive majors for people seeking jobs at their companies.

The response? As Koehn exclaims: "Two to one, they said: major in something that teaches you to write and think." 

For more from Harvard historian Nancy Koehn on the value of an undergraduate education in the humanities, listen to the full interview below.

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