There has been an ongoing discussion regarding the challenges facing higher education in the United States. These challenges are especially acute in the humanities, and of course a budget crisis and recession only magnify existing problems.
Louis Menand, in his book The Marketplace of Ideas, identifies as the core problem the focus of humanities professors on replicating themselves. That is, they seek to produce new humanities professors in their own mold:
His new book suggests that contemporary higher education’s biggest problem is professionalization. The academic department has become a guild, and, like any self-regulating bureaucracy, its errand is to replicate itself. To draw on an example close to Menand, who is both a member of Harvard’s English department and an unfailingly interesting cultural critic at The New Yorker, the result is that “the university literature department is not especially well suited to the business of producing either interesting literary criticism or interesting literary critics.” What it does well, of course, is produce good literature professors.
To a certain extent this is true and necessary of humanities department, I believe. How else will new professors be produced other than through graduate school in the humanities? Potentially unlike other fields, there are very few professional opportunities outside of the academy. Law graduates become lawyers and law professors; engineering PhDs become professional engineers and engineering professors. But what do literature PhDs do, other than teach literature?
My thought here is that perhaps this is not really a problem with graduate school programs per se, but rather that graduate departments reflect larger societal issues. Personally, I believe corporations and government agencies could benefit from the skills and approaches humanities scholars develop, but this is a hard sell. There is a chicken-and-the-egg problem, of course, since the more specialized and focused graduate programs are on producing people skilled only in being professors, the less desirable these PhDs are outside the academy. At the same time, the less demand there is outside the university, the more focused graduate school will be on preparing their student for their likeliest career path: teaching at a university.
The solution to this — if there is one — is unclear to me, but I intend to continue developing my thoughts and ideas on this as I proceed through my PhD program.