A Call for the Humanities to Unite

A Call for the Humanities to Unite


There is a different unifying principle for most non-STEM disciplines—among them English, history, politics and civics, languages and literatures, education, the arts, philosophy, psychology and sociology—which I call the human disciplines. All of the subjects within human disciplines are fundamentally interested in people and with subjectivity. Our disciplines not only illustrate esoteric questions of the meaning and purpose of life but are also uniquely well suited to explore questions of how to live and work with other people. In practical terms, if the job requires being able to work with and understand people—particularly those different from yourself—these degrees can, and should, make you better suited for it. They promote empathy, and require students to regard problems, and people, with complexity and the understanding that no single answer is right.

That is Paul B. Sturtevant, a research associate in the Office of Policy and Analysis at the Smithsonian Institution, writing at Inside Higher Ed about how the humanities might improve its “image problem.”

The kinds of jobs he thinks the humanities are good at preparing people for

exist in all walks of life and include CEOs, kindergarten teachers, judges, advertisers, curators, coaches, social workers and many others. They form the linchpin of our society. They not only drive our economy but also make our country a better place to live by having good, well-trained people doing these jobs. And these jobs are not just lucrative; they offer meaningful work. Understanding how to work with and inspire people makes you better suited to organize those around you toward a common goal, to write, speak and think with power and clarity, and to improve the lives of others. And, in practical terms, these are the jobs that are the least likely to be automated away.

There is a lot to chew over here. It would have been better had Sturtevant engaged with or made use of empirical data to shore up his claims about the humanities (e.g., are humanities majors really more empathetic or better at working with and understanding people? how lucrative are the jobs he mentions?).

But leaving that aside, I am curious about philosophers’ willingness to put aside differences and “unite” with the other humanities. So often, philosophers pride themselves on setting philosophical inquiry apart from the other humanistic disciplines, some of which we tend to view as less rigorous (sorry, non-philosophers reading this, but there is no point in denying philosophers are snobby in this way). It would be helpful to have a counterbalance to this, to hear different ways of conceiving the overlap between philosophy and other humanistic disciplines. Sturtevant, whose PhD is in medieval studies, doesn’t get it quite right. Not “all” philosophy is “fundamentally interested in people and with subjectivity.”

Additionally, I am intrigued by Sturtevant’s suggestion that the jobs the humanities best prepare students for are those that “are the least likely to be automated away.” Is that true?

(image: detail of untitled work by Donald Judd)
Judd graphic

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