May 2016 Townhouse Notes
As a cultural construction, is the so-called crisis of the humanities gendered? Do ideas about masculinity and femininity influence perceptions that the humanities are useless because they don’t prepare students for jobs? The evidence is ambiguous, but it’s also suggestive.
If history in particular is feminized, it will come as a surprise to those who follow disciplinary trends. National data show that men earn more history BAs than women do. While the most recent Survey of Earned Doctorates showed more parity in the ratio of history PhDs, men still outnumbered women by a proportion of about 10 percent. And, as Andrew Kahn and Rebecca Onion argued on Slate last January, male authors seem to dominate popular history.
But the “uselessness” of humanities BAs (and PhDs) is ever more relentlessly contrasted to the earning potential and social necessity of STEM degrees, job training, or both. This can come from liberals and conservatives alike. Barack Obama, 2014: “Folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” Jenean Hampton, lieutenant governor of Kentucky and a Tea Party conservative, 2016: “I would not be studying history. Unless, [sic] you have a job lined up.”
It’s worth asking whether statements like these are dog whistles about gender in the workforce. If the humanities don’t lead to jobs the way pharmacy or computer science supposedly do, are they fit undergraduate majors for future workers? And which workers do we mean? Even as states face shortages of nurses and teachers—professions women still dominate—I’m not sure the male breadwinner ideal has dissipated entirely from the realm of policy. If it’s unwise for college students to major in humanities disciplines, perhaps it’s more unwise for men.
Women scholars have long pointed out that male-dominated professions (including the professoriate) decline in prestige and pay as soon as women and people of color establish a foothold in them. It’s no surprise, therefore, that legislators and citizens treat higher education as a punching bag—it’s been diversifying for years. But some disciplines are more diverse than others. A great many STEM practitioners recognize that there’s a gender imbalance within their disciplines and are doing difficult work to rectify it. Yet STEM disciplines benefit from the perception that they are for men, that they train men for real jobs. The humanities come up short, no matter how much data they produce about employability, earnings, and job satisfaction.
Gender analysis is one thing many humanists can contribute to the fight. In much public discourse, perceptions are as important as numbers—do politicians consult any data before spouting off about which subjects are worthy of public funding? As long as the topic of “jobs” continues to frame debates about the future of higher education, it’s worth paying attention to gender—and asking whether our students’ dreams about their education are tempered by beliefs about gender.
—Allison Miller, editor
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