Saturday, March 08, 2008

Oh the humanities!

To be a humanities grad student is to be a constant object of mockery. It's competitive enough to get into PhD programs, but once you enroll, your career choice becomes evidence that you are spoiled and white or dim-witted, female, and politically-correct. Or maybe all of the above!

Christina Hoff Summers explains: "Departments of physics, math, chemis­try, engineering, and computer science have remained traditional, rigorous, competitive, relatively meritocratic, and under the control of no-nonsense professors dedicated to objec­tive standards." She thinks that the disproportionate presence of women in the humanities is linked to (what she sees as) the field's silliness. Where there was once important scholarship, there's now high-pitched whining about patriarchy. So that's where we're getting it from the right.

But over at Stuff White People Like, the humanities grad student is a joke because he or she is white. "The best subjects are English, History, Art History, Film, Gender Studies, Studies, Classics, Philosophy, Political Science, Literature, and the ultimate: Comp Lit. MFA’s are also acceptable." So from the left (or whatever one thinks the site constitutes), the critique is that the field is filled with the stuck-up, rich, and pale. Grad school is effeminate in the same way that whiteness is effeminate, but grad students need not actually be women for there to be useless-knowledge acquisition.

But it's not just that the field is considered too white and too female to be of use. (I see a connection to Hillary Clinton's candidacy, but not enough to develop into anything.) The humanities are criticized for being too political, or when not political, for being too irrelevant to contemporary politics. We're either moral-relativizing our way through the subject of Islamic terrorism and scrapping masculine pronouns, or presenting papers on obscure subjects no one cares about anyway. PhD programs are among the few grad programs whose students are, while still students, economically self-sufficient. Yet unlike law, business, or med students, those of us in doctoral programs are, we often hear, avoiding the 'real world.'

I was startled to read Amber's recent remark that law school is where those rejected from PhD programs end up. It was one of the few times I've seen grad school presented, if implicitly, as a respectable choice. (The fact that just about every UChicago grad I know has at least considered applying to doctoral programs doesn't count, because, as with the 'new college hook-up culture,' the U of C is always the exception that proves the rule.)

So, in our defense: Research and teaching are interesting; doctoral programs (often? usually?) pay; and if academia works out for you it pays decently well, while if not you can always figure out something else to do at the ripe old age of, say, 28, which is not too late to start a new path if need be. I don't believe that being in a doctoral program is more or less noble than any other career choice, or that the most brilliant minds gravitate to this rather than, say, business or law. There are smart people doing all kinds of things. Nor do I think academia is a divine calling. But it's not as silly as some would have it. Or so says this pale, female grad student.


Anonymous said...

Good grief. PhDs in humanities are not "silly" at all! Why does everything have to be about immediate and obvious utility? Academia is not about learning a trade and I for one am a big fan of, well, I was gonna say the arcane and esoteric, but that's not quite right is it?

Whatever. If we had to rely on Lawyers and MBAs for everything life would be VERY. FUCKING. BORING.

So, kudos to all you Humanities Grad students.

Withywindle said...

You don't think there's greater room for laziness and BS in the humanities than in engineering?

I remain moderately persuaded by the thesis that academics (humanities or not) take greater pride in their intelligence than do other professionals, businessmen, etc., possibly as a salve for their relatively low salaries as professionals. I would love to say there is a negative correlation between pride in intelligence and actual intelligence--and I probably have at some point in the past--but at any rate, I'm doubtful there's a positive correlation.

Amber said...

If one's sole desire is to defer entry into the working world, PhD programs are far superior to JD programs, if only because they last longer. But among my law school classmates, it was widely acknowledged that the most intelligent of their college friends had gone into PhD programs (typically in the sciences) and those with less brains but more social skills went to business school, leaving the math-challenged dregs for law school (the LSAT doesn't test quantitative skills; the GRE does). Any top-flight PhD program, though, is more challenging than a JD program of equivalent stature. Hold your head high.

Andrew Stevens said...

That's quite a tendentious view you have of Ms. Summers's article. I'm forced to wonder how closely you read it. Ms. Summers herself received her PhD in humanities (philosophy which, admittedly, with the American emphasis on analytical philosophy is halfway between traditional humanities and sciences in its intellectual rigor). Anyway, it is not my sense that Ms. Summers thinks humanities are "silly." She is just concerned about the negative effects on math and physical sciences if we decide that low female representation is a result of sexism, rather than differences in interest, and start making serious changes in order to get more women into the fields.

She quotes, for example, a noted leader in the science equity campaign, MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins who claims that the MIT physical science system is one "where winning is everything, and women find it repulsive." Hopkins suggests changes to the system so that it's less competitive.

The women who are successful in the physical sciences (particularly the more mathematically rigorous ones like physics rather than the less rigorous ones like biology) are generally just as successful as the men and are not interested in making the field less competitive.

Ms. Hopkins seems to believe that men are more interested in highly competitive cultures and women more interested in more cooperative cultures. This may very well be true. However, she presents no evidence or even a theory for why replacing a male-focused cultural system with a female-focused cultural system in the sciences will actually be beneficial to the sciences. Indeed, I'm not sure it's ever occurred to her to ask the question. Getting more women into the math and sciences system is her only goal.

Title IX in sports basically reduced men's sports to the level of women's interest. (It turned out not to be possible to drum up women's interest to the level of men's.) As long as we're talking about sports, I don't think anyone cares too much. Sports are trivial. A Title IX for math and science may very well have the same result and that could be devastating. American dysfunction in primary and secondary education is a real problem, but we're currently being bailed out by our world-class universities. This doesn't have to remain true if we start tinkering with them.

It is of course quite possible that this lack of interest on the part of women is cultural rather than biological and perhaps it can be attacked. But it needs to be attacked at a lower level, primary and secondary education, not at the university level.

As for practicality, the successes of math and the physical sciences in improving our well-being are manifest. Only a fool could deny them. The practical benefits of academic research in the humanities may very well exist (in fact, I think it does), but its benefits are both much smaller and much subtler.

Withywindle, sadly pride in intelligence is almost certainly positively correlated with actual intelligence. Pride in intelligence is really quite a silly thing. Intellect is far, far less important than virtue or wisdom. But most people who are excessively proud of their intelligence are generally very intelligent. They are rarely virtuous or wise, though.

Withywindle said...

Andrew: But is there proof? Happily eschewing proof, I recur to Jane Austen, filled with characters who pride themselves for what they lack--Fanny Price's aunt, so generous with other people's money, say. And of course I agree with your estimation of the importance of virtue and wisdom.

Andrew Stevens said...

I'm not sure I've ever seen a study on it. My own opinion is based on my own observations. People who are particularly proud of their intelligence usually value intelligence because that's what they're best at. Schooling makes it hard to deceive yourself for very long on this score. If you're not in the top 25%, you're going to figure it out awfully quickly. However, people who do pride themselves excessively on their intelligence do usually overestimate their own intelligence considerably. While someone in the bottom 25% can't really fool themselves for long that they're in the top 25%, it's relatively easy for someone in the top 25% to fool themselves into thinking they're in the top 1% when they aren't.

If we take a subset of people, purely in the top 25%, for example, then I believe that the correlation of pride in intelligence and actual intelligence may very well disappear, but I would be astonished if there wasn't a positive correlation for people as a whole. The human capacity for self-deception is both vast and subtle, but I don't think it's that vast and subtle. I rarely meet people who are lousy athletes who pride themselves on their athletic ability, but I meet plenty of good athletes who do.

Withywindle said...

OK, I can buy that.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Andrew Stevens:

"I'm forced to wonder how closely you read it."

As closely as I read anything I blog about, and I'm guessing as closely as you read my post. Summers says humanities have been made silly by becoming more woman-friendly and female-dominated. "She thinks that the disproportionate presence of women in the humanities is linked to (what she sees as) the field's silliness." By "linked" I mean both that women=silly in this framework, and that the affirmative action or whatever other attempts are made at drawing in women are, according to Summers, conducive to silliness. Thus, "linked."

Andrew Stevens said...

Yes, I understand that you are accusing Summers of saying that humanities has been made silly by the disproportionate presence of women. I see no basis for that accusation in the article she wrote. You simply reiterated your own interpretation in the comment above. I'm perfectly willing to believe that you're right and I'm wrong. Some quotes from the article in support of your interpretation would convince me.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Alas, there's a limit to how much time I want to spend on any one post. This was my reading of her article, which I believe I clarified in my comment.