What we need to hear—and what the Harvard report doesn’t offer us—are their voices. We also need to hear the voices of those whose lives are touched by these humanities majors after college, whether at the workplace or in the community.
What makes some students believe that being humanists will make them better doctors, better lawyers, better advertising experts? What do they find, in their courses, to keep them in departments of English and history and Romance languages? How are we helping them to articulate what they bring to the world beyond the university, so they can tell those stories more effectively? How can we make those stories available to new undergraduates as they decide what to study?
It’s not by worrying about the numbers, in the end, that we will find out what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong as teachers. Nor is it by closing our ears (not to mention our minds) to the various communities beyond the academy in which our former students live and work—and in which we live and work.
It’s by listening, as humanists do best, to stories, and seeing what the narratives can teach us. Open your ears and—we promise you—you’ll hear stories that don’t resemble what you read in the media.
Have you heard about the professor of neurology who, as a student, learned to do research by writing a prize-winning senior thesis in history on the death of Captain Cook? No, of course you haven’t. But he exists, too, and so do thousands more. They live all over the country, and they work in all sorts of jobs. We need to learn more about what they are doing and how their humanities education has played a continuing role in their lives.
Counting won’t get us where we have to go. We need to talk, and even more, we need to listen.