Over the weekend, this open post on Medium to the CEO of Yelp! written by a frustrated young employee went viral. Since, responses have popped up on late night television, in LinkedIn posts and elsewhere.
Stepping away from the details of this particular event for a moment, this points to a significant problem that the humanities disciplines must address if they are to survive and thrive in higher ed.
On the one hand, we have college students and recent grads who find themselves in the situation of needing an increasingly expensive four-year degree simply to get an entry level job that comes with an entry-level salary. That is a frustrating and unfair situation for people to face as they start their adult lives. And it isn’t the fault of those who work in the humanities.
On the other hand, how did this person–and others like her–not know better than to enter into many aspects of her current situation? Shame on her, but shame on us in the academy for not providing better preparation to these young people with expensive degrees (and often accompanying debt) that are minimum qualifications for minimum wage jobs.
In the humanities, we pride ourselves on teaching critical thinking. We claim to churn out students with sharp analysis and synthesis skills. We say over and over again that the value of an English degree like this young woman has is precisely those broad, higher order thinking skills.
But what good are those skills–assuming we’re even successfully teaching them–if students can’t apply them in practice? How could we possibly have done a good job teaching this English major to think critically if she can’t apply that thinking to this math equation:
If I earn $1466.48/month and sign a rental agreement for $1245/month, that leaves $221.48 for phone, transportation, food, gas & electric, spending money…everything else!
The numbers don’t add up. It’s as if she’s never had to analyze a situation and synthesize the results of her analysis.
Likewise, how could we have taught this person anything about critical thinking if she doesn’t know to think twice before publicly posting her frustrated diatribe? Doesn’t she know to at least sleep on a draft one night before submitting it? Did any of the courses she took in college require her to think about disputes from the perspective of both parties? To step outside of her own experience and see a situation as the other might? Did she never have to take the long view side-by-side with the short view in an analytical essay?
The skills she needed to avoid the bad situation that she then made a bad decision to post about should have been taught in college–and not just in theory; their practical applications must be made clear to students before we turn them out into the world.
This is the flaw in all our arguments in favor of the humanities! We say the skills we teach are valuable. But we fail to prove it by churning out students who can apply those skills in the real world.
Even if we say this young woman is a “single rare case,” we all know that students put content in writing (in emails to us) all the time that they probably should not; we aren’t requiring students to apply critical thinking skills to the everyday, practical administrative tasks involved in getting a college degree (like written communication with faculty). And if those tendencies go unchecked–as they mostly do–they could easily lead to something similar to this open post to the CEO.
Long gone are the days when English majors were all preparing for graduate studies and future careers in the academy. Can you imagine the disaster it would be if all English majors went to grad school and sought employment in higher ed? I know it’s also a disaster to not have enough English majors to keep those currently employed in higher ed in their jobs. But for the future to be sustainable for us all, we must adapt. We must come down out of our ivory towers and connect the dots for those we claim to prepare for life beyond campus.
Darcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy: firstname.lastname@example.org