What’s the Point of a Degree in Humanities?, Part II

The first reason to get a degree (or several) in the Humanities is if you have certain needs that can only be addressed by getting this sort of education. I know that this sounds confusing, so I will give a real-life example to illustrate my point.

When I was 20 years old and still living in Ukraine, I invited an acquaintance (let’s call her Anya) to come over to my place. Anya was from a very poor family that lived in the country-side. She was one of 4 siblings. Her father was a violent alcoholic who boozed all day long and never even tried to make a single dime. Her mother worked day and night to feed the family and then struggled to fight off the violent husband who beat her and stole the money she made to buy booze.

Anya was a very bright young woman who didn’t want to live this way. She came to the city to get an education and create a different kind of existence for herself. In short, she is a very admirable, self-made sort of person.

When Anya saw my huge apartment (and when I say “my”, I mean that it was really mine, not some bank’s), my book-lined study, and my gentle, adoring husband who served us a beautiful meal he’d been creating and decorating for three hours (I didn’t know how to boil water at that time. Cooking became my hobby much later), she gasped.

“You are the luckiest person in the world,” she said. “You are living the life of my dreams.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not happy. I feel like none of this has any meaning. My life is empty and useless.”

Anya looked at me like I was a raving maniac. After that visit, she started avoiding me, and we never talked again.

In this situation, Anya and I could have never found a common ground. She was trying to address issues that, for me, had already been solved by the previous generations of people in my family. What for her was an important goal she was going to achieve after years of struggling was something I saw as a given.

Let’s look at this issue from a different perspective now. My North American friends are always very baffled by my unwavering love of capitalism. They like me, so they have learned to accept it as a strange quirk. The difference between us is that they grew up surrounded by all kinds of goods and services anybody could possibly wish for. And so did their parents, grandparents, etc. For them, being able to go out and just buy toilet paper is not a big deal. For me, however, it’s something I did not experience as a child, so the joy of having things available for consumption is still very fresh.

My North American friends never had to figure out what to do when you cannot buy basic goods for any amount of money because such basic goods do not exist in your society. This is why now they can concentrate on the disadvantages of capitalism. I would need a couple of generations of living in a capitalist society to get to that stage.

The professional and financial success, the husband who adored me and never tasted alcohol were not my achievements. They were my mother’s, and she’d handed them to me when I was born. (My mother’s origins were not as tragic as Anya’s but, still, very similar to hers.)

I needed my own set of challenges to feel like my life wasn’t simply a replay of my mother’s existence. This is why I could now dedicate all of my energies to thinking about the meaning of life, studying philosophy and Latin, and analyzing Spanish literature.

When you develop such a set of needs, a degree in the Humanities becomes indispensable to you. It is not the only way, of course, but it’s one of the most logical ones.

In his book, Aaron Clarey says:

In majoring in a good [meaning, STEM] field you increase your earnings potential, begetting a bevvy of financial benefits. . . With high incomes and increased wealth, you can go and enjoy a better life. You can afford better food, live in a better neighborhood, drive a nicer car, and do not have to go into debt to do it. You can send your kids to private schools, get them better educations, and ensure a better future for them. You can also retire earlier, travel more, and just have more leisure time in general.

If you create a list of priorities for yourself and the ones Aaron enumerates in this quote make the top slots on that list, then you probably should think long and hard before getting a degree in Literature, Classics, or Philosophy. If, however, things like “reading huge numbers of books and discussing them for hours with like-minded individuals” make the top of the list, my colleagues and I are eagerly awaiting you in our classes.

[To be continued. . .]

What’s the Point of a Degree in Humanities?, Part I

Aaron Clarey, whose blog you can find here, sent me his book titled Worthless. The book’s title refers to the kind of college degrees that the writer deems to be worthless. Among them, are of course all of the Humanities and Liberal Arts degrees. Aaron is a talented guy with a really great sense of humor. Even if you disagree with what he has to say, you have to recognize that he is hilarious.

Here, for example, is Aaron’s explanation as to why Kinesiology is a useless degree:

Kinesiology is nothing more than a euphemism for “Advanced Gym Teacher” or “Overly-Educated Masseuse.”

And here is what he has to say about bankers:

Bankers are, in general, people who were too lazy to go into engineering, let alone accounting, but still wanted to make a ton of money. But since they have no tangible skills and were too intellectually lazy to go and develop some, they rely on corruption, nepotosm, cronyism, connections and “networking” to make money.

This is very well-said, in my opinion.

The reason why I’m discussing Aaron’s book is not that I simply want to share a couple of funny quotes, of course. Worthless raises a very important question that I want to address. Why should people get degrees in the Humanities, Aaron asks, if those degrees do not help them to make money?

As a scholar of the Humanities and a college professor, I can say the following to those who are asking themselves this question. A Bachelor’s degree in the Humanities is, in itself, definitely not aimed at helping anyone make significant amounts of money. Likewise for online masters degree programs in humanities. If your social, economic and class background are such that a house in the suburbs, a good car, three kids and a dog constitute the pinnacle of achievement for you, then, please, listen to Aaron Clarey and do not get a degree in the Humanities. Mind you, I’m not being critical of this dream. I’m just stating that there is a way to achieve it for people who start from scratch both economically and in terms of their class background, and that way is mapped out in Aaron’s book.

A degree in the Humanities becomes necessary when you have addressed the basic needs and are confronted with the two new ones that I will describe in the second part of this post.

[To be continued. . .]

What’s Up With These Students?

My Advanced Spanish students are very special. There is a lot of grammar in the course, which always makes me feel apologetic.

“I’m sorry for all these grammar activities,” I told them. “I know they must be boring.”

“No, no!” the students responded enthusiastically. “We LOVE grammar. Can you bring some more grammar exercises? We got together and made a list of topics where we still need some practice.”

This is an Advanced Spanish course, so the grammar we do is very complex. The students, however, can’t get enough of it. They even enjoy learning the terminology.

“When I think about the uses of subjunctive in the adverbial clauses,” one student says in Spanish, “I always enjoy considering how perfectly they transmit shades of meaning.”

It isn’t just grammar that they are good at. As a lab activity, they have read a short story by Horacio Quiroga and analyzed it. The absolute majority of the students came up with such interesting and unexpected readings of the story that I truly enjoyed grading that assignment. Usually, you get one or two people in a classroom who can engage critically with a text. Here, I had one or two people who did not manage to do that and wrote responses that were not very creative. The rest did great.

These students keep coming to my office to practice, to ask questions, and to discuss the subjunctive. I keep harping on the subjunctive because it is probably the most difficult grammar topic in the Spanish language. Normally, people’s eyes glaze over whenever the subjunctive is mentioned. I, however, am a great fan of the subjunctive and even have dreams where subjunctive and I go to the beach together. (Seriously, I do.) Students in this course make me happy because they share my enthusiasm for the subjunctive.

“Do you want me to turn on the subtitles for our movie?” I asked.

“No!” they responded. “We need to practice listening comprehension.”

I know that my readers are probably now waiting for a punchline where I will reveal that these are imaginary students and not the real ones. At least, when I share this with people I know, that’s their reaction. There are so many articles coming out every day that present the generation of today’s students as over-entitled, lazy, and whiny.

The truth is, though, that these are real students. I have no idea why they are so motivated, engaged and enthusiastic. I just hope that this is some sort of a new trend that will continue for a while.

Juanita and Her Two Husbands

My students are the best. When they read a short story where Juanita marries Pedro Martinez Gomez, it’s easier for them to conclude that Juanita married two men at the same time than that Pedro, like most Spanish speakers, calls himself by both his mother’s and his father’s last names.

As you might remember, I already had a similar problem with the Spanish philosopher who’d had the brilliant idea to go by the name “Ortega y Gasset.”