I have several times advised students from mainland China on applications to U.S. colleges. Two of my brightest students were girls, friends of each other, both with staggering knowledge of science. One had done research on heart disease, and the other had dabbled in nanotechnology.
Yet, when I asked them what their favorite book was -- a question that often helps me get to know a student -- I got identical responses: Harry Potter. And Harry Potter wasn't merely their favorite novel. It was the only novel they had read.
My grasp of statistics is not so weak as to assume that two students constitute a meaningful sample set. Nonetheless, they offer poignant case studies. Chinese high schools do not exactly promote free expression and critical thinking. The unalterable precepts of science pose minimal threat to the Party. Not so for, say, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
De-Humanizing the American Mind
Of course, Chinese students are hardly the only ones with limited personal libraries.
In June, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Committee on the Humanities and Social Sciences released, with equal parts fanfare and anxiety, its 61-page report on the state of the humanities, "The Heart of the Matter" (pdf). Fanfare for the hope that the humanities would rise again. Anxiety for the fear that they never would.
The numbers of students majoring in humanities disciplines have been plummeting: In 1970, nearly 64,000 bachelor's degrees were awarded for English, out of 840,000 degrees given that year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2010, the number was 53,231, while the total number of degrees awarded has nearly doubled. The percentages of students earning degrees in philosophy, history, and social science have declined similarly.
At Harvard, humanities majors now make up roughly 20 percent of the undergraduate body, down from 30 percent in 1956. Nationwide, that number is less than 8 percent. Students are shying away from the humanities because they see little connection between these disciplines and the jobs of the 21st century. Engineering and the sciences have gained students at a healthy clip.
Outdoing the STEMs, the number of candidates for undergraduate business degrees has multiplied from 26,000 in 1970, to 78,000 in 1990, and to 177,00 in 2010, making it the country's most popular major. And yet, we still have recessions.
As uneasy as the "business" world makes me, a businesslike attitude may yet hold the key to reviving the humanities.
When the American Academy of Humanities report came out, scholars and writers of all sorts took to the op-ed pages to insist that the study of literature and art are not esoteric, hermetic pursuits but rather essential practices that lead to creativity, problem-solving, and empathy. I happen to agree with those authors. The humanities enrich, create, and alter societies, cultures, and states in ways that dollars and cents cannot.
If you don't buy that, here's another way to look at it: if the Chinese government frowns on something, then everyone else should probably embrace it with full hearts and open minds.
But my opinion doesn't much matter, and neither do those of my fellow travelers. English majors are not credible advocates for studying English (the humanities camp has also been rightly accused of hand-wringing, deference, and arrogance). Nor do we have the sort of dispassionate metrics that would satisfy the opposition. Of course, that's the point: Not everything in this world can be expressed in data.
Eloquence and Employment
Sometimes the plot thickens. I may have been an English major, but I'm other things too (Walt Whitman referred to these things as "multitudes"). I'm an employee. And, at times, I've been an employer. Every job I've ever landed was, by definition, suited for an English major. Every job for which I have ever hired has, by definition, been suited for the same.
Plenty of other bosses feel the same way I do. They are at advertising firms, media outlets, entertainment companies, law firms, and even in finance. They work at every other company that needs at least one person who can present the company to its customers, vendors, and investors (that's pretty much every field). At tech firms, humanities majors can remind the engineers that not everything can be optimized, and that the utility of the most regimented system in the world often cannot that of empathy and instinct.
I know only two people who work at Google, neither of who know a thing about programming. One was a history major, and the other a sociology major. Another friend led the redesign of the e-commerce site of one of the largest retailers in the country. He majored in history.
These people don't teach middle school, mind a bookstore quietly behind horn rims, or write Jane Austen fan fiction in the bathtub. They work for companies with a combined market cap of over $300 billion. These companies are the ones who can shout most clearly and loudly about the need to reignite this country's passion for arts, letters, rhetoric, and all the other skills that are deemed "soft" only because they are too subtle to be reduced to 0s and 1s.
If the humanities are to survive -- or, rather, complement -- technology's onslaught, the people who get the most use out of humanities students must put their own rhetorical and persuasive skills to work. At employment fairs, recruiting events, in articles, and in job descriptions, companies must tell the world what they value. They must demand creativity, eloquence, and literacy, and they must dash the myth of marketability.
No student should ever trade history for business, religion for chemistry, or passion for drudgery. Just as ecosystems need diversity of species to survive, so do companies and economies need diversity of skills.
Literature, art, and religion have not survived, respectively, 3,000, 25,000, and incalculable thousands more years of war, famine, plague, Justin Bieber, and Honey Boo Boo merely because people get a kick out of them. Forms of entertainment change by the minute. The humanities have persisted because they are useful. It's up today's companies and entrepreneurs to seize upon their utility.
Someone has to write something on all of those MacBooks. Someone has to negotiate trade agreements. Someone has to make connections between disciplines rather than burrow into their specialties. Someone has to write emails in complete sentences and draft reports without throwing a fit. Someone has to come up with the narrative that explains the animus between pigs and birds. Someone has to write the next great wizard's tale, and, thankfully, someone has to edit my blog posts.
And someone has to write the next allegory about life in a totalitarian technocratic state.