September 22, 2014

FISCHER | Don’t Cry, Humanities

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This is a column

About the humanities

You will get a job

Hopefully, the mere appearance of a half-brained attempt at a haiku has scared away any STEM majors foolish enough to skim past this column’s headline. Most STEM majors are already secure in the notion that will likely receive gainful employment in their chosen career field. Whether that looks like software engineering in the Silicon Valley, financial modeling on Wall Street or any other myriad of things for which I personally have absolutely no qualifications, the path from Ivy-sprawling Ithaca to the big cities seems guaranteed. This predilection to parlay mathematical and scientific skills into certain employment is admirable.

All of that being said, as an English major, I personally don’t have the same sort of security when it comes to finding a job. Scholarly pursuits aside, there isn’t a clear-cut path for the career interests for many humanities majors. Pair a job climate that almost requires a college education with ever-rising university tuitions, and the notion that post-college employment requires an immediate return on investment makes a lot of sense. For decades, soothsayers have proclaimed the death of the humanities for these exact reasons. However, somehow, the humanities have not yet died.

As a humanities practitioner, I feel it necessary to appeal now to the frequently parroted rationalization for studying history: “History teaches us about the past so we can avoid the same mistakes in the future.” So what can Cornell’s past relationship with the humanities tell us about our understanding of the humanities today? In their class about Cornell’s past 75 years (the time period where they claim “Contemporary Cornell” was created), Professors Isaac Kramnick and Glenn Altschuler (of the government and history departments, respectively) have brought to light some interesting material focusing on the relationship between the humanities and the sciences.

One particularly interesting document that Professors Kramnick and Altschuler brought to our attention was a short story from the Cornell Writer literary magazine published in 1953 called “Indian Love Call” by then-student Ronald Sukenick ’55 (who “grew up” to be a professor and author). As an interesting side note, the story, and its subsequent attempted censorship by then-Cornell President Deane Malott (yes, the namesake for the campus mathematics building) due to what he perceived as its “immoral” content, would prove foreshadowing for a protest several years later that boiled over into a 3,000-student riot outside Malott’s Cayuga Heights home and the termination of the University’s in loco parentis policy. Isn’t history fun?

Anyway, back to the short story relevant to this column. Sukenick sets “Indian Love Call” in an off-campus apartment at Cornell in the 1950s, so we can assume that it’s a pretty good barometer for the attitude of at least part of the campus. The story highlights a tension between sciences and the humanities with Sybill Lumpkin (“a serious-minded girl and a Soc [Sociology] major”) and Henry Faber (an English major) discussing the scientific merit of the works of a poet. Their discussion seems more like a metaphor for the usefulness of the two disciplines rather than a simple half-intellectual discussion about poetry in the midst of an off-campus apartment party. Another character, Emil Danzig, suggests, tongue-in-cheek, that Faber’s arguments are driven primarily by “departmental jealousy, necessary for the maintenance of any healthy English department,” an argument I found striking due to its applicability to the contemporary debate about the values of the humanities.

Danzig’s suggestion that Faber’s defense of his favorite poet (as well as the offense he subtly throws against Lumpkin’s beloved Sociology department) is predicated on a departmental jealousy, which underscores what I see as humanities departments’ constant need to justify their continued existence. Courses of study involving business or technology have a much clearer path to employment (and a higher likely starting salary) than those in art history or classical studies. Therefore, humanities departments feel the need to stage events that inform liberal arts minded students that they’ll be able to get jobs, and highlight the impressive careers that their former students are engaged in. However, I think that these departments are somewhat missing the point.

I personally chose to study English because I enjoy it. I enjoy most aspects of the major (the reading, the writing) and I don’t think that I would enjoy other courses of study the same way. I wouldn’t enjoy the type of work that STEM majors do (nor would I have the high-level mathematical skills to accomplish those things). Therefore, I’m sure that I wouldn’t be chasing after those careers either way. A quality that universities often trumpet about their humanities students is the critical thinking skills they develop throughout the course of their education. Although critical thinking skills sound appealing, I don’t think that they are the chief lesson to be learned from a humanities curriculum. A propensity toward taking intellectual risks is one of the most important lessons I have learned from studying the humanities at Cornell. Risks like starting a column with a haiku or going off on “fun fact” tangents. If you’re doing what you enjoy and what makes you happy, the risks are worth it.

David Fischer is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Fischy Business appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.