A particularly insightful friend of mine, a Ph.D. student in the Economics Department, posted this picture on her facebook recently, and it did a pretty good job of describing my feelings on my own break from grad school. I definitely experienced the “realize there’s more to life than work” phase, and sure enough, this quickly led to an “existential crisis.” I asked myself: “what am I doing in academia?” “Is this really how I want to spend the rest of my life?”
The higher education system in the United States is undergoing a serious crisis in confidence. The masses of college graduates from my generation worked hard to set themselves down the path they were told was the sure-fire means to upward mobility from the beginning of their lives. But when the economic recession of 2008 hit right as we were matriculating into the “real world,” many of us found ourselves with coveted degrees, but without job prospects and saddled by thousands and thousands of dollars in debt.
These cold, hard realities have inspired many to detest the system, and a few to take steps to drastically critique or change it. Scott H. Young is attempting (and so far succeeding) to prove that it is possible to master the entire 4-year computer science curriculum at MIT without any standardized tests, tuition payments, or time spent in a classroom. A couple years ago, Frontline did a fascinating documentary on the rise of private, for-profit educational institutions (think University of Phoenix) which offer students accredited degrees at a fraction of the price by using an online-classroom model. For the traditional brick-and-mortar, non-profit institutions, the financial crunch created by the recession and plummeting endowments has led some administrators to look for ways to cut costs. SUNY Albany responded to this pressure in 2010 by cutting their French, Italian, Russian, Classics, and Theater Departments.
It is perhaps this last trend that is particularly worrying to some academics in the humanities. In a world in which a university education has become less the province of the elite for cultivation in the national culture and more the universal requirement for participation in the job force, esoteric subjects like philosophy, literature, languages, and cultural studies (which I group under the term “the humanities” in this post) are difficult to justify. Some have a difficult time understanding just what skills students pick up in these disciplines that can prepare them for life after college.
The subject of what students can take away from an education in the humanities will be fodder for a future post. For now, I want to talk about what academics in the humanities can do to make themselves relevant in the 21st-century. Where some see a difficult challenge, I look at technology and our increasingly-networked world, and I see opportunity. Pioneering professors have already shown how to use technology to connect with the public. Historian Juan Cole has been providing accurate and independent analysis on current events, with a particular focus on events in the Middle East, since 2004 with his excellent blog “Informed Comment.” Indeed, English literature professor Michael Berube has a claim to have invented blogging in 1985, and continued running his site for 25 years while publishing a mix of scholarly research and personal diary for all to see.
I see a prominent and important role for blogs like these to play in the future. Mainstream, corporate media is deficient in almost all respects. The 24-hour news-cycle and drive to exploit a given market niche has led to a race to the bottom among television networks like CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News. Moreover, the sheer proliferation of amateur blogs has led to a watering-down of online content and difficulty discerning an informed opinion from someone talking out of their ass. Dedicated publishing from recognized academic experts, and the intellectual freedom and independence offered by those working within the tenure system, allows for personal blogs from humanities academics to fill the glaring hole in the information that is being disseminated to the concerned public.
So that’s what I want to use this blog to do. In future posts, I will be sharing my research–which focuses on the cultural history of modern Egypt–and the research of others in a distilled form, in hopes of inspiring conversation and increased understanding of past, present, and future events in the Middle East. But most importantly, I want to hear from you. In the future, I hope to hear from readers with any questions they have about current events in the Middle East. But as part of the larger project of this blog, I would love to hear about the experiences of past or present humanities students today. Are you happy with your choice of degree? Do you see value in the humanities as an academic endeavor? Why or why not?