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Louis Menand is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard University. His areas of interest include 19th and 20th century cultural history. His books include the[…]

Not on purpose, says the “Marketplace of Ideas” author. But the system is starting to hurt them nonetheless.

Question: Are humanitiesrndegrees high-risk?


Louis Menand:  Yeah.  Well, I think the time to degree is right now the bigrnobstacle to entry into the professions. rnNow, the median time to degree, to PhD in the humanities is nine rnyears,rnand that’s time as a registered student. rnThe time between Bachelor’s degree and a PhD, the median time is rnover 11rnyears.  So then you’re still onlyrnon a tenure ladder, you’re not tenured. rnSo it generally takes 6 to 8 years after that to get tenure.  So that’s a very long period of what’srnessentially apprenticeship, of insecurity. rnI don’t think that’s very healthy for any business, certainly notrn for arnbusiness where you want people to be original and creative and take rnrisks.  So I think that’s a big problem, andrnthe humanities seems to be doing worse than the other disciplines, rnthough thernother disciplines also have increased time to degrees.


Now, part of the reason for that is that it’s rndifficult tornget a job and people stay in school longer because they’re employed as rnteachingrnassistants or instructors by their schools, by their schools where rnthey’rerngraduate students, and that does become exploitative eventually because rnthey’rernvery cheap labor and there’s a way in which in it’s not in the rninstitution’srninterest to give them a degree if they can continue to employ them, I rndon’trnthink anybody thinks that way, but effectively that’s the way the systemrn isrnstarting to work.  That’s a badrnmorale problem and it’s something that gets into the mentality of the rnABD’s, whorndo a lot of this teaching, and it’s not good for, again, not good forrncollegiality, and not good for intellectual culture.


So I think everybody recognizes at this point that rnwe’verngotten ourselves into a really weird situation where the supply curve rnand therndemand curve are just not, you know, where they should be and it would rnbe veryrngood for the profession generally, and the humanities in particular, rnbecause wernhave a lot of other things that we’re struggling with, if we could rnget thernprofessional training part of it a little more rational and efficient.