We Need a Sales Force for the Humanities
Fewer and fewer students are buying into one of the richest and most vibrant areas of study. It’s time to change that.
In recent years, the Humanities and liberal arts are being given short shrift by many in the public sphere. Marco Rubio famously commented that the world needs more welders, not philosophers, and that the former make more money than the latter. Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin suggested that students should not receive money from the state to fund an education in most non-STEM fields. Slate has a wonderful piece about comments made by Wells Fargo, Mitt Romney, and Rick Scott, among others — all disparaging the study of liberal arts and humanities in higher education.
All of this is part of a general closing of the American mind about what education should be. Verlyn Klinkenborg at the New York Times explains:
Undergraduates will tell you that they’re under pressure — from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large — to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs. Too often, that means skipping the humanities.
In other words, there is a new and narrowing vocational emphasis in the way students and their parents think about what to study in college.
There is a certain literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities. It suggests a number of things. One, the rush to make education pay off presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring (though that doesn’t explain the current popularity of political science). Two, the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter. And three, the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities. You don’t have to choose only one of these explanations. All three apply.
The Paradigm Shift
Things were not always this way. In fact, humanities and liberal arts faculty had it pretty good in the early days of the university. College educators existed in what I refer to as the scholastic paradigm.
In the scholastic paradigm, students came in (mostly) without rigid and specific goals and expectations for the education; there was an element of trust there, trust that the subject matter would provide a meaningful and enriching foundation of a productive life for students. Education was there to liberate (hence the term “liberal education”), and students only expected to leave with a wide range of opportunities before them, and the beginnings of a specialized body of knowledge. This trust has been lost, largely because of the shift in the public discourse.
The shift represents a change to what I call the market paradigm, where the context has shifted from trust and willingness to skepticism and immediate demands. Students have become skeptical of the value of the humanities, and they have a set of demands that such classes be either tailored to meet their immediate demands (namely, training for specific jobs), or jettisoned from the curriculum.
Higher education is being treated more like mere vocational training than anything else.
The problem is this: when we rely on 18 year-olds to dictate what their education consists of, we narrow the scope of possibilities of that education, and in turn, we narrow the possibilities of what they can do in the future. In broader terms, catering to what consumers want only gives them what they know they want now, but at the cost of all of the things they never knew could enrich their lives. By demanding that higher education look more like job-training, we end up missing the forest of a life full of possibilities for the trees of just getting whatever the job du jour is.
A Call to Action
There is a call to action here, because the danger of this paradigm shift is that the context of market demand poses a threat to the content of the humanities education. If humanities educators can adapt to the changing context, they can resist a change to the content of the humanities education. But the way of adapting is to yield — at leas initially — to the paradigm shift.
To wit, if educators change their method from ivory tower erudite lecturer to engaged salesperson, we can keep Thoreau and Chaucer from being permanently replaced by Stephen Covey and Stephenie Meyer.
In order to get buy-in for the humanities, educators must adopt a mindset of a fully vested businessperson who is selling to skeptical buyers.
To some that might be bad news. It might be bad news that those of us who joined the academy by and large to escape a life of selling and marketing now have to essentially be in sales. The good news, however, is that we are selling a product that we whole-hardheartedly believe in. This is a luxury that few salespeople have.
How to Sell the Humanities
1. Recognize that wants are not needs. Filling a need sells.
Students in this new market paradigm are focused on getting jobs; in most cases, all else is prioritized below that goal. For a student entering college today, what they want from their education is simple: good career opportunities. This is not their fault. They inherit those wants from their parents, from pundits, and from politicians — who publicly denigrate the non-STEM parts of higher education.
However, educators likely recognize that students need much more than just early job training — they need a well-rounded education. There is a disconnect that faculty must address and remedy before any student can be convinced of the value of the subject matter of the humanities. That gap-bridging needs to be front and center until the students and the educators are on the same page about the value of the content. In other words, the context must be that of selling through meeting a need, while highlighting how important the content is.
2. Telling is not selling.
Questions are the most valuable tools you can utilize in sales. Since the new educational paradigm is forcing educators to sell the value of the material they teach first and foremost, questions ought to constitute a large part of the toolbox of today’s humanities educator.
Asking students questions about what they are looking to do, what they value, what kind of pressure they’re under, is a great way to get a feel for what exactly will help sell the humanities to them. This should not be difficult; the great works of the humanities deal with the fundamental issues of human existence. Interestingly, human existence includes business-related subject matter — like accounting and finance — so the bulk of the student body need not fear the humanities!
3. Speak the customers’ language, until they begin speaking yours.
This point is of the utmost importance in really getting buy-in from students. Acknowledge their feelings, their worries, their stresses, and show them that you validate them, perhaps share some of them. A period of doing this can be followed by linking up the material you teach with what is at the front of their minds. It is even easier to do this if you inject a healthy amount of discussion into class, because if done right, it will bring out even more pain points and thoughts on the students’ minds.
I spent about 5 years teaching beastly 165-minute-long night classes at a community college. One trick that I tried during my tenure was this: on the first day, as an ice-breaker, each student was asked to state for the class the following.
- Their name (as they preferred it to be used in class).
- Where they are from (which they could interpret however they liked).
- The most interesting piece of advice they had heard.
Number 3 was my “in”. The advice didn’t need to be good, just interesting, and it need not have been told to them, it could have been seen in a movie, read in a book or article, or overheard. Luckily, most of these gems (and there were some gems) came in the form of “shoulds” and “oughts”, which is right in the wheelhouse of ethics, and thus philosophy. After each one, I’d make a simple assessment of the advice, talk about possible pitfalls or unexpected consequences of following it, and wrap it all up with a bow while showing how philosophy deals with exactly that — all punctuated with some jokes for warmth.
The point is, getting the students to unknowingly do the work of the humanities in very rough terminology — but their terminology — allows for an easy inroad. Once that inroad is made, some sales can be made. Once that sale is made, students can make the sale to their parents, their communities, and the pundits who set the tone of the discussion about education in America. That’s how the humanities can survive and thrive in the new market paradigm.
An early version of the above article was inspired by and given as a presentation at the Community College Humanities Association Central Division conference in Indianapolis, IN in November 2014. At that time, I was an adjunct instructor of Philosophy at a community college. Though I am no longer teaching, I stand by the message presented below.