Ugh. Another snarky article about how graduate students in the humanities are deluded and responsible for their own misery, this time from Rebecca Schuman at Slate. I hate these rants for several reasons, one of which I’ve touched on earlier: there is no land of magical great jobs that people are sacrificing by going to graduate school, particularly in the humanities. Everybody’s having a tough time finding a secure, fulfilling job these days. The US labor market is undergoing some pretty fundamental shifts, and it’s far from evident which careers and fields will emerge from the Great Recession unbattered and offering opportunities to young workers.
Obviously, academia isn’t a secure career choice, but there are very few secure career choices these days, and even fewer secure career choices that someone committed to teaching and critical inquiry can feel passionate about. Most graduate students aren’t choosing between a run at the academy and a well-paid, highly-satisfying job in the non-profit sector. They’re choosing between grad school and a job they hate, or a low-paying job in a field that’s overrun with other folks looking for a career doing something they feel passionate about.
“Don’t go to grad school” makes all sorts of blanked assumptions about class and race that Tressie McMillan Cottom covers beautifully.
But that’s not even what irritates me most. Because, yeah, as individual advice, “don’t go to grad school” is pretty good. Everyone should be strongly advised not to go to grad school. But that cannot be the only message about grad school that makes it onto the national media radar. Not while we’re still holding out any hope for American higher education as an institution.
When we say “don’t go to grad school,” and especially when we say, “don’t go to grad school in the humanities,” we’re confirming the popular notion that the humanities are useless. They’re so useless that the best advice we can come up with is to just shut them down wholesale by depriving humanities departments of anyone to teach in them. They’re so useless that advanced study in the humanities can’t possibly prepare you for anything other than a professorship. They’re not only useless, but they’re toxic. Spend too long in a humanities discipline and you become a broken-down shell of a person whose primary contribution can only be angry rants about the academy.
All of that may be true in many individual cases, just as “don’t go to grad school” is good advice in many individual cases. But if this is the only advice we can offer, if this is the best solution to the problem of graduate education, then we might as well hand the job of educating American college students over to EdX and Coursera now.
These perennial rants are an opportunity to say, yes, graduate education in the humanities needs some serious attention and, yes, the people who teach college students to think and write should not have to live in poverty, but we need people to teach students to think and write. If no one goes to grad school, then the machines will have to grade the papers, and American students will be poorer for it.
Why keep giving advice that suggests exploited workers are to blame for their own exploitation? Why keep giving advice that offers absolutely nothing in the way of systematic or institutional solutions? Why keep giving advice that, if actually followed, would shut down education in the humanities? The only reason I can think of is that you don’t actually believe educating students in the humanities is worthwhile. And if that’s the case, why do you get to be the voice that everyone outside of academe hears? Why do you get a national platform? And why are those of us who still care about defending the humanities engaging with this stupid argument again and again?