QotD: Forlorn Hope Edition

An ongoing theme at this blog deals with the challenges facing the liberal arts and humanities in the coming years. I’ve said on numerous occasions that I have serious qualms about recommending grad school in the humanities, even to my best and brightest, including one of my current advisees. She’d be willing to vouch for the fact that I’m telling her that such programs are only slightly better bets than a lottery ticket these days, and that a lot of very bright people are being exploited by the corporatized higher ed industry.

Part of the problem, of course, stems from the fact that a lot of academics have spent their entire careers in academia, and are consequently somewhat blind to other career paths. (Another more cynical part of me occasionally thinks that a lot of grad programs don’t much give a damn what happens to the grad students after a while, as long as there’s always a fresh crop of T.A.s and seminar audiences. It’s Marc Bousquet’s “Ph.D.-as-waste-product” theory.) And there’s also the notion that a fair percentage of grad students have absorbed the idea that the academic life is the only life of the mind (a position I suspect may be associated with the business of grad student shame). This is nonsense on stilts, of course — my dad didn’t get his B.A. until the year before I left high school, but a more lively mind you are unlikely to meet. Still, a lot of bright kids fall for it.

But there are other games in town, and it would serve us well to recognize that. To that end, articles like one that ran last month at the Times Higher Education page may be of use. It mentions that a number of tech companies have a real interest in working with humanities folks. For example, a speaker from Google mentioned that upwards of two-thirds of its hires in the next year (4000-5000) will come from the humanities/liberal arts.

Why? Well, that brings us to the QotD:

Developing user interfaces, for example, was at least as much about knowing how to observe and understand people as about pure technological skill, [Google VP Marissa Mayer] added.

Ms Mayer’s Stanford BA in symbolic systems, which included philosophy and psychology, had proved as useful as her MBA in computer science to her work at Google, the executive said. Even programming was fundamentally about communication and often came more easily to humanities graduates than mathematicians.


[Google’s director of engineering Damon] Horowitz drew on his own experience to explain the value of humanities PhDs. Ten years ago, he recalled, he had been “a technologist, with a high-paying technology job, doing cutting-edge artificial intelligence work, and generally living the technotopian good life”.

Yet he had come to realise that “the artificial intelligence systems I was building weren’t actually that intelligent” and amounted to little more than “a bunch of clever toys”.

This led to some major philosophical questions and then a PhD, which Dr Horowitz described as “a personal intellectual transformation” and “a rite of passage to intellectual adulthood”.

It had also made him “a better technologist than before”.


About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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3 Responses to QotD: Forlorn Hope Edition

  1. Kate P says:

    The QOTD is exactly how my mother felt (feels) about our education. My parents wanted us kids to get a Liberal Arts education so we could “think.” They didn’t care which major we chose. I’m grateful for what they provided (and trust me I earned scholarships and didn’t party on their dime) but while I wouldn’t trade my education for anything, I just feel a ton of resentment when I get those donation letters from my high school and college. I came out of these schools with no debt and yet I’m not making enough to send any money back to them–and it makes no sense to me at all. I even went back to grad school thinking I’d earn more money and now I’m earning less than I did when I left my corporate job. Not that the corporate job’s there anymore, mind you!

  2. F says:

    I think there is a difference between encouraging students to do BAs in humanities/history and encouraging them to do PhDs. A good BA helps you learn to think; doing a PhD trains you to think and argue within a particular discipline. I am all in favor of thinking like an historian, but I do worry about what kinds of jobs our PhD students are going to be able to get.

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