More Silly Humanities Idealism

Yet another case of that silly and damaging humanities idealism.

Last month the Daily Beast listed archaeology among the thirteen most useless major subjects at US colleges, as measured by employment opportunities and earnings potential. Bradley T. Lepper, curator of archaeology at the Ohio Historical Society, objects. He argues that archaeological knowledge is valuable to the long-term sustainability of a civilisation, and so the subject should be more highly valued. Whether true or not, this is beside the point. Daily Beast didn’t list subjects that they think should by rights be poorly paid or offer few job opportunities. They’re performing a valuable service in warning their readers about college majors that do in fact lead to poor pay and offer few job opportunities.

Lepper allows that our subject “certainly is not a career path for anyone who wants to get rich”. I don’t know anything about the Ohio job market, but I suspect that this is a grave understatement there as well. It would have been more accurate and honest to say that archaeology is not a career path for anyone who wants to get employment relevant to their college major. That is, anyone who wants a return on their investment of time and funds during college.

(And commenters, please don’t make the tired and baseless “archaeology gives you useful secondary skills” argument. Employers prefer people with useful primary skills.)

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

24 thoughts on “More Silly Humanities Idealism”

  1. I think I have yet to meet an undergraduate naive enough to enter into humanities in the belief that they would get value for their invested student loan. Do they exist? I think we need not point out further the low employability of our students.

    This position is however not incompatible with the kind of idealism to which you are linking.


  2. Where is that market for archeology? Changing career path is an obvious thing unless you are a medical, nurse or priest. My experince is that I have learned more after the university years. What we lean at the university is reading books very fast, do scientific analysis of problems and write a report of the results.


  3. Take heart. The Sunday New York Times had an opinion article titled Finding the First Americans, which concerns the archaeological evidence for pre-Clovis people in North America. Having just finished reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, it seemed to me that there was nothing new in the Times article, but it is interesting, nevertheless. Indeed, it would be a tragedy if nobody chose to study such things because of the fact that jobs in the field are tough to come by and aren’t a fast track to wealth and glory.


  4. Typical Marxist shenanigans feeding from the capitalist trough. What the world needs isn’t more productive people in the work force. What the world needs isn’t more educated consumers. The world needs what anthropology, and anthropology almost alone, has to offer: viable views of the real world. Not “the real world” that stern fathers speak of, consisting of mortgages and apathy; not the fleeting and ephemeral party that leaves psychological and environmental destruction in its wake. The world where things worked (into perpetuity) and people benefitted from it. That’s what people need to know and that’s what people will benefit from. No, you’re right: using the idiotic logic and standards of our culture, anthropology/archaeology are terrible answers; but that doesn’t matter when you’re asking the wrong question.


  5. I already had a programmer job after high school; I only went to university because I wanted to know more about computer science and math. After a brief stint as a programmer again after graduation, I entered grad school to do a PhD in cognitie science at the philosophy department. Again, I fully expected to return to a programming job again once I was done; the Phd was simply a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something completely different.

    Ten years after getting my “just for fun” doctorate, my research job is a near-perfect fit to what I was studying in graduate school. This is due to no fault of my own, though; I really expected to be a developer again some day.


  6. And yet, the most employable people in the job market are still those who graduate from the liberal arts. Go figure. What’s unique about archaeology is that it is really a science within the social sciences that teaches aspects of natural sciences, politics, history, and languages…all of which are useful. That, and it’s a very interesting field of study. If we were to all graduate with degrees that are only relevant because they potentially earn a lot of money we would be one of the most mundane, boring, and uneducated societies in the history of the world. Consider a world where only engineers and technologists are gainfully employed….oh, ya, that’s right, my ancestors fought in the last world war against a nation full of technocrats. Thanfully, we now live in a society that still frowns upon that culture, and thrives on an education full of humanities, knowledge, and learning.


  7. Mattias, in my experience the undergrads may not expect value for their time and loans in comparison to what business school would give them. But they certainly expect a livelihood relevant to their major subject.


  8. Bob, I care more about the happiness of people than about the health of my academic subject in abstract.


  9. N.N., no, that is not the real problem. Students should operate in the actual world, not wish for one that would suit them better.


  10. [Comment pasted in b/c of site migration]

    Wrote SM:

    Isn’t the real damage the idea that university education is mainly for teaching job skills? If the question “what is university for” is framed in that way, of course the historical sciences will do poorly. But that model is a very poor fit for every university system I am familiar with, from the middle ages down. Universities contain programs which are taught for practical reasons (medical school, applied computer science, education) but those have never been a
    majority of the curriculum.

    At least in the Anglosphere, I think more people need to stand up and say “academe should be driven by curiosity, not markets. Sometimes that curiosity will have financial rewards, but that isn’t why anyone does it.” That suggests some productive questions, like “why is the metric for success of a program the number of undergraduates it trains and research papers it publishes?” and “how can we make it easier for people employed outside the academe to do research and publish occasionally?” Most higher education is a luxury done for its own sake, and a country with a GDP per capita in the tens of thousands of dollars can afford a lot of luxuries.


  11. [Comment pasted in b/c of site migration]

    Wrote Richard D:

    It depends on what skills you learn while doing your archaeological work in my experience (and no I don’t meant the secondary stuff, I mean the real primary technical skills).

    Obviously this isn’t directly related to the humanities side of
    archaeology per-se but I have been able to translate the work I did in GIS research into a very nice start in a cartographic career. Yes this isn’t archaeology but I am enjoying it and in the end it was what I decided I wanted to do.

    True I could have gone down the geography route to begin with but to be honest I had no real clue that I would love that side of things until I started doing it as a archaeology post grad.

    Of course, it all depends upon how you build your degree and the options you take so I would urge any archaeological student to try and do one aspect of the job that involves technical skills that can be used in the outside world.

    In defence of your opinion Martin, I should probably add some caveats to what I wrote earlier as I have had time to mull it over.

    At no point during my undergrad degree (still less later) was there any effort to tell people what useful skills were. In retrospect I was lucky to find a niche that was both something I enjoyed (and so followed) and has turned out to be useful. Plenty of people didn’t, especially when construction projects were plentiful and so commercial
    jobs were easy to come by.

    I was also lucky/or exceptional in that I never paid a penny for my postgraduate education because of funding. I realize this isn’t the case for most people and certainly my partner has thus far not got back any value from her masters that she paid for. If you count in all the skills I gained from undergrad to PhD for free then I guess I am an outlier

    Take those things out of the equation and things look a lot more bleak.


  12. Richard D, I believe you would have been even better off today if that mostly blind alley in the education system had not been open to you.


  13. SM, I would not advise any young person to go into debt for and/or squander their early twenties on something that will not help feed their kids a decade later.

    I agree that archaeology as a whole is a luxury to *society*. That does not mean that it is a reasonable career option for more than a handful of people. Most *people* cannot afford luxuries.


  14. N.N., as I have often said on this blog and elsewhere, archaeology’s best claim for relevance is not usefulness but fun potential.

    “Archaeology is after all not useful to anyone in the sense that food and housing and healthcare are useful. The hallmark of good archaeology, instead, is that it is fun. It is
    chocolate, not potatoes. And if it is not fun, then it is bad archaeology.”

    I can’t say I wasted my time getting an archaeology degree as I am one of very, very few people who make a living from it. As for me wasting your time now by getting a degree in 1992, or being a problem for you, I don’t understand what you mean. Please rephrase.


  15. I have a liberal arts undergraduate degree. It got me into professional school – the Bachelor’s helped get me into human services after I graduated, the well-written essay helped me into school. My field’s projected growth is continuing to increase. I’m eligible for student loan forgiveness if I work in an underserved area for approximately two years. Other benefits as well.

    When I talk to people about going to college, I refer to liberal arts degrees as three different possibilities:

    prep for graduate or professional school (law, medicine, mental health counseling – people-related). This is what I ended up doing. There are graduate schools that appreciate someone who can write reasonably well and have good communication skills – many, in fact.

    a major adjunct to a sciences undergraduate degree – We need engineers who can write coherent e-mails and have speaking skills needed to communicate with their coworkers – these skills aren’t inherent in a lot of folks, sadly.

    a bucket list degree – your older, you have cash laying around, you’ve always been interested in a subject but didn’t have the chance to study it when you were younger. Not very common these days with the economy, but I do run into these adults on occasion.

    Liberal arts study is important, but I think studying it solely is for the few. I don’t tell people not to study liberal arts at all – more as studying liberal arts a portion but not the sum of education.


  16. I think the history of the past 200 years is useful as a political corrective. Prior to that the world was so different from ours that knowledge of its history is not useful. But it is fun!


  17. Listen to me you arrogant do-nothing, you man know grammar and you may know statistics, however you are the most pathetic excuse for a blogger. First, you are obviously biased on the topic, perhaps because you dreamed of being an archaeologist and failed on your thesis. Second, you are just a condescending vagabond whose most exciting part of his day is writing on this poor excuse for a blog. Archaeology is the key to our past and perhaps the answer to our future. By the by, what are your credentials?


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