As is often the case, Public Discourse has an interesting article today, this one by Matthew Milliner on the current hand-wringing about the future of humanistic inquiry in American higher education.

Milliner, a graduate student in art history at Princeton and a blogger here at First Thoughts, covers a lot of ground, but one point really caught my attention: the tendency of commentators to point to a lousy job market and interminable graduate study as symptoms of a serious problem in academia.

As Milliner reports, Louis Menand raised this concern in his recent survey of the state of the university, “The Marketplace Of Ideas.” Menand makes an observation that’s meant to be damning: “You can become a lawyer in three years, an M.D. In four years, and an M.D.-Ph.D. in six years, but the median time to do a doctoral degree in the humanities disciplines is nine years.”

The implication is that graduate study in English and History is primarily about training and credentialing for a career, with the implicit judgment that it’s silly to imagine that people need nine years to jump through the requisite hoops or learn the appropriate skills.

To this judgment, as Milliner notes, many make the point that the job market for recent PhDs in the humanities is wretched. Again, the implied judgment is that the current scene it bad: we’re training people for no good purpose, because so many can’t get jobs.

There is a lot wrong with American higher education, and I’ve written my share of critiques. But Milliner points out that there is something wrong with this angle of criticism. It treats graduate study as a means to an end—having an “academic career”—when, in fact, humanistic study in an intrinsic good.

Milliner is right. Graduate study may lead to a career as a professor. Who knows, it may be the beginning of a path that leads into the netherworlds of academic administration—or into government bureaucracy, law school, or journalism (it’s been know to happen!). My point (and Milliner’s) is that the career path isn’t the reason for the liberal arts. Indeed, the very name “liberal” in liberal arts means free from concerns about how to make a living. Roman history, medieval poetry, Jansenist theology—these are worth thinking about, full stop.

Thus one reason why graduate students take so long to complete their degrees: for the most part doctoral study in the humanities is very engaging and rewarding. In fact, I often joke (but only half-joke) that the biggest mistake I ever made was to complete my degree.

Over the years I’ve had students and young friends ask me whether or not they should pursue graduate study in the humanities (and theology, which is strictly speaking “the divinities”). Here is what I say: “Only do it if you think it’s worthwhile for its own sake, only if you think you’ll always be glad you did so even if you don’t end up as an academic, only if you’re in love with the discipline.”

Careers? They don’t in fact make people happy. But loves do.

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