John McGowan, director of the institute, said Menand was a natural choice to speak on such an issue.
“The humanities, of course, are perpetually in crisis, and the navel gazing that accompanies that never-ending crisis can get pretty tiresome, especially if you’ve been around that conversation for 25 years,” McGowan said.
Menand cited growing numbers of non-humanities degree programs, meager funding for humanists and the slim availability of professorial positions as reasons for the turn away from humanities.
He added that students now look toward more professional degrees, as evidenced by business being the No. 1 major in the United States.
The lack of versatility in doctorate degrees also discourages students from aspiring to work in the humanities, he said.
“Right now we’re training people in a subfield of a traditional discipline,” Menand said.
“Then when they emerge, they are expected to be interdisciplinary, to teach non-specialists, to write for columns in other disciplines — if we want professors to do these things, we should train them.”
He said shortening the time it takes to complete a doctorate might make the pursuit of one more attractive.
Most doctorates are earned over the course of nine years, and when degree earners in the humanities are unable to secure work after school, they can be forced to learn a new trade late in life, he said.
Sophomore journalism and math major John Sherman, who attended the lecture, said he has often thought about the true value of humanities as a prospective teacher.
Sherman said while he believes people don’t always think beyond their discipline, he hopes they would do that on their own time outside of class.
“We don’t really need to have a whole subject devoted to letting people just think about life apart from their specialization,” Sherman said.
Menand said the idea that the humanities cannot inform other disciplines is incorrect. He added that subjects such as art and literature have a great cognitive value.
“They are themselves an act of human life,” he said. “A painting or a novel is a recording of experience.”
Menand said it is necessary to fight back against the belief that the humanities are irrelevant to other disciplines.
“To the extent that humanists are infiltrating other fields of inquiry, we should keep on infiltrating, and we should take no hostages.”
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