I don’t want my most recent post addressing the problems of the ivory tower to detract from a very important message: the arts and humanities are important and academic study in the arts and humanities is important. Yes, despite my ceaseless complaining, I really do love studying English. And there’s more love to go around for history, geography, gender studies, cultural studies, religious studies, film studies, the visual arts, etc., etc.

Now, this current post is not meant to function as naked cheerleading for an arts degree. It’s a very tough job market for our ilk and for that reason, among others, the arts aren’t for everyone. What I am more interested in is addressing the inferiority complex I see in so many young undergraduates already committed to the arts, an inferiority complex imposed by an instrumentalist, growth-driven, capitalist culture.

I would like to turn to Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. In this manifesto, Nussbaum writes that “The humanities and arts are being cut away, in primary/secondary and university education, in virtually every nation of the world…They are seen by policymakers as useless frills, at a time when nations must cut away all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market” (2). Similarly, Daniel Rigney refers to the devaluation of forms of thought that don’t promise immediate practical payoffs as “unreflective instrumentalism” (444), the most prominent form of anti-intellectualism in North America. So yes, capitalism is the source of the inferiority complex. Surprise, surprise.

Nussbaum argues that we need the arts and humanities to foster democratic citizenship and civic engagement, which hinge on the abilities to think critically, examine, debate, reflect, and empathize (25). I agree with her. After all, an arts education cultivates:

  • Critical thinking skills that help people to question authority, stand up to peer pressure, weigh evidence, and resist the groupthink that can lead to atrocities.
    • The idea here is that arts students form an integral part of the culture of individual dissent necessary for a healthy democracy (Nussbaum 53).
    • I’d like to think we are seeing evidence of a culture of individual dissent in the current American election. Of course, it’s certainly not only of the liberal variety (I’m referring to Trump supporters). We need critical thinking and dissent to go hand in hand.
  • Empathy, or the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes. The more one learns and reads about the experiences and perspectives of others, the easier empathy becomes. In our social and political lives, empathy is undoubtedly essential, yet so consistently undervalued in a world of unending conflict and greed.
  • Cosmopolitan thinking (Nussbaum 79-80): The ability to transcend local loyalties and think critically about global issues. For instance cosmopolitan thinking helps to produce multilateral solutions to problems in a globalized world — think of collective security, climate change, human trafficking, and countless other examples.
  • Critical discourse that helps students reflect upon what ends, both material and ideal, are worth pursuing in society (Rigney 447).
    • For instance, an arts education can encourage reflection on distribution and social inequality, rather than just the “unfettered pursuit of growth” (Nussbaum 22).
    • Ideally, arts students would endeavour to make make this critical discourse public, to encourage others to do the same reflection.

All of these skills, abilities, and values are reasons why arts degrees are both necessary and valuable in our society, even if they are not always recognized as such. It’s important to keep these reasons in mind when it feels like the world is beating you down, berating you for pursuing a “useless” degree instead of one based in technical reason, with a clear path to financial success.

And as a final note, if anyone reading this is grappling with how exactly to respond to all those people who will inevitably ask why you’re not studying something more “practical,” I suggest you just adopt the easy, breezy response of my girl, Lupita Nyong’o (who studied drama at Yale): “Hey man, it’s [just] not my style.”


Lupita always knows best.


Nussbaum, Martha C. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Rigney, Daniel. “Three Kinds of Anti-Intellectualism: Rethinking Hofstadter.” Sociological Inquiry 61.4 (1991): 434-451.

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