The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday May 26th

Michael Berube says students shouldn't fear the humanities

Pennsylvania State University literature professor Michael Berube believes in the humanities.

Berube, a famous literary critic, was brought to UNC to talk about the state of the field. Berube discussed his blog post “The Humanities and the Advancement of Knowledge” to share his ideas on the importance of research in the humanities. 

There is a zombie belief, a false belief that won't die, that a humanities degree will hurt you economically, Berube said.  

“Here’s the catch though,” he said. “By age 50, the humanities majors earn salaries on a parity with almost everybody, but the engineers, but it takes longer.” 

English professor John McGowan said UNC graduate students bring two to three speakers a year onto campus who have been doing important work. This year Michael Berube was chosen. 

“So we all know that the humanities seem to be under attack,” McGowan said. “Students don’t want to major in it. They say it’s worthless. So this is a talk about what the humanities have to contribute both to the University and to society.”

Berube spoke about the American Academy of Arts and Sciences report called “Heart of the Matter.” He said the report was to try to make the case as to why graduates are needed in the humanities and social sciences, but it doesn’t really say anything about why professors need to be doing new research.

“The people doing research could offer really interesting courses about why a particular research is important and, not only what kind of intellectual traditions and thoughts it may lead you to, but also what kind of jobs,” Berube said.

Associate Professor Heidi Kim said this was an opportunity for her to pay Berube back for the intellectual generosity he showed her when she was a graduate student. She said she wanted to reflect on the broad and thoughtful career he has built.

“In the last several years his formal publications and his editorial work have been focused on two areas: disability studies and politics of humanities and liberal art studies,” she said.

Berube said he created a program called Being Humans at Penn State, where he gave opportunities for those with terminal degrees to continue their research. The program had a very low teaching requirement, while participants to continue research.

“The theme was being humans because that’s pretty broad,” he said. “I wanted to let people know that they weren’t being excluded.”

He said the program gave him time to keep working on publishable research, as well as to help make connections.

McGowan said he wants people to contemplate the humanities and its use in society. 

“What we want to gain are other ways of thinking about or new ways of thinking about what the humanities do, what the humanities are for, why are we so committed to them and what other ways can we make our case to the larger public about what the humanities are good for,” McGowan said.

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