Over on The Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Hayot suggests that humanities subjects have a marketing problem. Because students are oriented on the utility of degree programs to career development, it is easy to understand what the goals of degrees like accounting, business management, chemistry and physical therapy are but less clear in regard to history and literature outside of teaching those subjects.
Since I often rail against measuring the value of the arts in terms of utility, I was put a little on guard as I started reading further. Hayot’s idea is to reorganize subject matter and reframe content more in terms of social problems that need consideration and addressing which is often what the performing and visual arts practice expresses.
One way to put such a change in place would be to reorganize the existing curriculum into sets of four-course modules. Such modules could come in two types. Skill modules would focus on practices: language learning, writing and speaking, historical, cultural, and social analysis. Theme modules would focus on topics: social justice, migration studies, the problem of God, translation, journalism, wealth and inequality, conflict, ideas of beauty, television, society and technology, and the like.
They would also need to convey to students that just because modules on issues like sex and sexuality or Latinx studies or Chinese history exist does not mean that they wouldn’t overlap with, say, material in your discussion of human environments or social justice. (You don’t want a curriculum to imply that the study of sexuality or African Americans happens over here, while the study of history “in general” happens over there.)
There is a lot of detail about his proposal in the article that I obviously can’t depict here without cutting and pasting super extensively. What he suggests bears some consideration because it more directly addresses the oft expressed concept that the skills you gain in humanities degree programs can be applied in myriad professions because of the overlap and interrelations between these topics. Hayot is basically calling for the silos of degree programs to be broken down significantly.
If we want to teach students that human life is not organized into disciplines, then we should not organize our curricula into disciplines. If we want to teach students to see historical connections across differing conditions of global power, we should not organize our literature departments exclusively around modern languages, whose effect is to reproduce over and over again the knowledge and aesthetic work produced in a period of European dominance.
Hayot lists a number of benefits he sees in this approach. Among those that appeared to respond most with the complaints of detractors of humanities degrees have made:
• Appealing immediately to students’ actual interests, or, in other words, meeting students where they are, in current historical conditions, rather than lamenting their lack of interest in traditional humanities majors. .. our job is to teach them, by hook or by crook, not to lament their resistance to being taught.
• Not forcing students into majors because they need a credential — the modules serve as the credential and communicate far more clearly than major titles a set of interests, skills, and expertise (to employers and parents as well).
• Encouraging comparison in geographic, linguistic, and historical modes, … You couldn’t teach someone about poverty or justice or technology without using examples that cross space, language, and time. This has the advantage of moving geographic and linguistic breadth away from being an “angle” that one takes on a topic and toward being a necessary precondition of humanist knowledge.
This may seem unrelated to performing and visual arts which can have a clearer path of progression from degree to practice than some humanities, but art doesn’t happen in a vacuum and people whose education has been aligned in these terms are probably going to be more likely to appreciate the value of creative expression across different cultures.