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Opinion

“Ambitious of Doing the World Some Good”

9.26.13

One of the more interesting observations in Mapping the Future, an assessment (released in May) of the state of the humanities—and their declining concentrator numbers—within Harvard College, was that more than half the freshmen who say they're interested in a humanities concentration when they enter end up changing their minds by the time they declare a major, halfway through sophomore year. Here’s another: more than half of those who don’t pursue the humanities end up as social-science concentrators. Although concerns about future employability often play some role in this decision, the report’s authors found that students who switch are more commonly motivated by idealism: “One of the main factors in their choice of social sciences over humanities, students report, is the desire ‘to contribute positively to society.’”

Mapping the Future has some problems, like its choice of concentrator numbers as its cardinal measure of the health of the humanities in the College and its unhelpful stance of competition with the social sciences. But the report does raise the useful question of what it's like to be 18 or 19 at Harvard and "ambitious of doing the world some good," as Keats once put it. Let's say that you excelled in high-school English and history and you're eager to venture into all kinds of new fields—archaeology and psychology and astronomy—although you think you might ultimately want to concentrate in the humanities. You write well, you love reading; money may be a concern, but your first goal is to find work you love that also helps others. But what will that work be?

I graduated from Harvard in 2012, recently enough to offer some up-to-date impressions. Today's humanities concentrators hear terrible things from all corners that prey on their imaginations: that journalism is in free fall; most Internet writing's unpaid; and the minnows in the pool of traditional-media jobs are turning to cannibalism. Ditto for publishing. Teaching in a public school, absent support from an organization like Teach For America, means going up against unsupportive legislatures, growing pressure to teach to tests, and rapid “charterization.” Lawyers and law students tell you that their job market has never been worse—and that's the option that used to be called “selling out.” Public-service jobs—also scarce—present stiff competition to be a cog that's powerless to fix the creaking machine it's in. Finally, graduate school and the academic life combine the worst aspects of all of the above: institutional acrimony and an unforgiving, often stipendiary, job market. 

When you're an undergraduate thinking about what kind of jobs your degree might lead to, it's easy to let the panic of others overwhelm you. The people inside journalism spend a lot of time worrying about crises inside journalism, just as lawyers spend time worrying about crises inside their profession. These anxieties, spilling over into the imaginations of undergraduates, are frequently amplified to proportions that don't necessarily reflect reality. The College dining halls breed an endemic pessimism whose extent is, I think, underestimated by faculty and staff.

Realistic advice and warnings are important. (For too long, the academy let people wander into grad school without worrying about what happened to them afterward; this has changed in recent years.) But at the same time, I met a lot of humanities concentrators in college who have gone on to pursue such fields with no more trouble than the average 22-year-old starting a job. They work in government, write for newspapers and magazines, teach, work for acting and literary agencies, produce music, drama, and art, and go to graduate and professional school. These are not occupations that require radical reinventions of society or economy. And these recent graduates had no more difficult a time making their way into such positions than the social-, natural-, and physical-science concentrators I knew. There is a disconnect between the reality of the lives I see my college friends building now and the direness of what we imagined just two or three years ago.

One of the best things the humanities concentrations, the College, and the Office of Career Services (OCS) could do to combat this excessive pessimism is to highlight the careers of graduates, especially recent graduates. This already goes on to some extent—many concentrations have alumni profiles on their websites, for example—but needs to happen far more often and more visibly. In my freshman year, the Humanities Center and the Office of the President held one big, weekend-long event with Yo-Yo Ma on careers in the humanities, which was great. But this event was then held up as "the big victory" every year for the rest of my time at Harvard, with no further follow-up. Such events do work (especially by sending the message that "the humanities matter," cheesy as that may sound), but they have to be held more consistently, on at least an annual basis.

The little events and websites that currently exist are not enough to balance the culture of worry in the College among humanities concentrators. The job fairs and small panels I went to only exacerbated the problem. Students felt alienated from the kinds of companies present there (frequently perceived, rightly or wrongly, mainly as corporations offering management, marketing, consulting, and sales jobs). They felt such organizations bore little relationship to the ideals they held—especially that goal of "contributing positively to society." It might be fair to say that students should be open to broadening their range of acceptable careers. But such events should also address their ideals straightforwardly. Students want to hear the battle stories about how people managed to get their start. As Helen Vendler has written, resources should be found to allow representatives of nonprofits, newspapers, and museums, for example—organizations that can't afford to send their own people—to come and speak about their career experiences, as well as what they look for in employees.

The humanities departments should also tell students early on that, with adequate planning, they can take the coursework necessary to become competent programmers or interpreters of quantitative data and still be English, art history, or classics concentrators—and the departments should repeat this message regularly. (Pre-med students, after all, are given this message early and often with regard to medical-school requirements.)

Lastly, all the College voices involved in giving career advice of any kind—freshman advisers, resident tutors, OCS staff, teaching fellows, department administrators, and faculty—should temper prudent realism with encouragement to fight for things that matter. Honesty about the challenges of a career in the academy or journalism or public service is good, of course, but the world—or at least its labor market—may be a little too good at shooing people my age away from walks of life that are important, even if they are also difficult. Harvard frequently speaks about the need to teach leadership skills. But what does that "leadership" amount to if you end up running away from the hardest challenges? Inculcate us with a sense of crisis, yes—but also with the message that courage will be necessary to fix that state of crisis. A little bit of a Messiah complex wouldn't be the worst thing at a time like this (at least, not if you plan work at a newspaper).

It is comforting to find out through Mapping the Future that most Harvard students do profess to be more concerned about contributing positively to society than about reaching their full earning potential immediately upon graduating. But it would be enormously helpful for young humanists to see more examples of the many different ways in which alumni who’ve concentrated in the humanities have made such contributions in the past, and to have the choices of those graduates vindicated as viable options for how a younger generation might do the same. Tell those students who arrive at Harvard excited about a humanistic education that you don’t have to concentrate in economics to work in international aid; that you can do things with a law degree that reflect a social conscience; and that the person who manages to fix newspapers, or English departments, or legislatures will be a hero for us all.

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