What’s Really Broken about Humanities Grad School

Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here.

You’ve heard the advice, and it’s completely correct: Do not go to grad school in the humanities.

Do not go for history. Do not go for literature. Do not go for philosophy, classics, or any other field.

Pace Freddie, this isn’t just me trying to make you bobos feel better about your well-paid but less-than-intellectually-satisfying jobs. Nor am I trying to make you more aware somehow of the current economic conditions. (Note the cross purposes, but I digress.)

No. Granted, that’s Slate‘s business model, but this thing is a lot bigger than Slate. Tim Burke first wrote that piece about history grad school back in 2004 or so. I know, because we read it as grad students. It was our samizdat, back when graduation seemed a long way off and when, paradoxically, the harrowing of the job market was all too close.

The complaint here is not about the current economic moment, and it’s not about any people outside the academy. History grad students care not at all for either one. Sorry, I was a history grad student, and we didn’t. Reading for eighteen hours a day breeds indifference.

But rather than carping, which I’ve already done somewhere else at length, I’m going to offer a solution.

It’s time for humanities graduate programs to recognize that their primary function has changed. By the numbers, graduate programs used to be about replicating the academy — about making sure that there will be enough professors around in twenty or thirty years to still have an academy. That is, grad school existed to continue the cultural and professional memory of the university system, to include both the asking of really good seminar questions and also simply the American academic accent — to my ear it’s an arch, slightly effeminate mid-Atlantic that tends to slur the sibilants. No, really. I talked that way too, God help me.

Well. Goodbye to all that. For nearly the last two decades, the large majority of people who earned history Ph.D.s have never become professors. They have become publishers, writer/editors, journalists, actors, critics, lawyers, staffers in our vast nonprofit system, political activists (yay!), and a wide variety of other unclassifiable jobs. All of which have one thing in common — they demand exceptionally strong interpretive, writing, and reasoning skills.

That’s not going to change anytime soon, so it’s most likely time for the academy to teach to the test. I suspect that all parties involved would be better off if it were simply admitted that the job market (the universities themselves most definitely included) has repurposed humanities grad school. Intended for one thing, it now gets used for another.

The academy is reluctant to admit it; non-academic jobs are still an indication of failure. Truth be told, I spent years describing myself as a “failed academic.” I resolved to stop only after my last promotion. In view of some of my cohort who are still on the adjunct treadmill, it seemed pretty heartless.

But I can’t say that I got where I did with much help from the academy. Oh no. People ask how to get a job like mine — another of those subtle hints that I’m not actually a failure — and I tell them that I basically have no idea. It’s not the job I set out to get. I still have a shelf of unwritten history books in my head, and I probably always will: The cultural history of Lent in the Old Regime. The connection between Jansenism and Mesmerism. What on earth was meant by communing with the dead via mushrooms in New France. The French Revolution in the works of the 19th-century French liberals. And on and on.

I miss that career. I have every right to. But I don’t really have the right to complain. I am well aware that I won a lottery of sorts. Nothing at all in the academy guided me toward a decent non-academic job.

When I spoke with a senior faculty member at my graduate school, noting that most of us, even at Johns Hopkins, were certainly not going to get tenure-track jobs, and when I suggested that the department might do well to explore career counseling further afield, I recall that I was shot down pretty hard. “We can’t dilute our mission,” I was told.

Well. I have absolutely nothing against replicating the academy. It should be replicated. I did well by it, and so did plenty of others, and I hope it’s still around for my grandchildren. But to pretend that self-replication is all that grad school is about… that does a disservice to most grad students.

The large majority of Ph.D. students shouldn’t be told that they have failed if they don’t land an academic job. If that’s true, then the majority of the academy consists of failures. These students shouldn’t have to slink off to sites like Escape the Ivory Tower for therapeutic deprogramming. They shouldn’t have to turn to books like So What Are You Going to Do With That? for realistic career counseling.

The academy has come to depend on graduate student labor. Graduate students get something valuable out of the academy, even if they don’t end up as professors. If they’d both adapt to their new roles rather than trying to ape their academic grandparents’ career trajectories, they could get on with the business of learning, teaching, and eventually getting some pretty decent jobs, wherever those may be found.

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