Tag Archives: Humanities

Pimps, Hos, and When to Get Out of the Ghetto

I recently compared Humanities (Cultural Anthropology, English Literature, History, Philosophy) professors at research universities as pimps who rule the ghetto. Razib Khan liked the analogy so much he extended it with question: “do pimps facilitate good healthy sex for society, or do they encourage the spread of unpalatable contagion by perpetuating the ghetto and its conditions?

The answer: In the ghetto, pimps provide wages to hos who, depending on their character, either become accustomed to the poverty (thus joining the self-perpetuating underclass) or use the capital they accumulate to escape the ghetto.

To review: the ghetto is a neighborhood defined by economic deprivation. A very noticeable ghetto in academic life is the humanities ghetto of low wages and low employment:

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Remember that the ghetto has four types of people: pimps (who make the best of a bad environment by running the ghetto), escapees (including those who are planning their escape), losers (including hos who work for pimps), and disaster tourists (including johns who provide the wages for the losers). Here’s an example of a loser ho:

“I am not a welfare queen,” says Melissa Bruninga-Matteau.

That’s how she feels compelled to start a conversation about how she, a white woman with a Ph.D. in medieval history and an adjunct professor, came to rely on food stamps and Medicaid. Ms. Bruninga-Matteau, a 43-year-old single mother who teaches two humanities courses at Yavapai College, in Prescott, Ariz., says the stereotype of the people receiving such aid does not reflect reality. Recipients include growing numbers of people like her, the highly educated, whose advanced degrees have not insulated them from financial hardship.

But the “ghetto” is larger than just the humanities. Many non-progressive sciences are in the ghetto, because they are run by old boys networks — by their pimps. Likewise, even having progressive research programs does not (necessarily) protect against ghettoization. Using information from Indeed (which suffers from all sorts of biases, but the relative values of which have face validity), this is a chart of the overlapping ghettos by PhD concentration, against where you want to be:

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The humanities does not confine you to poverty (you can escape). Whether or not science comes to an end, the myth that scientific training means a successful life certainly should. Being in a normal science does not guarantee success. Personal success comes from finding something that can provide you with joy, provide you with the ability to be the best, and provide you with pay. If you have these attributes in what you are doing, you can be successful, whatever your compensation (in terms of money, power, and prestige).

Petroleum engineers who enjoy their work can enjoy these from heights. Pimps can enjoy these from the ghetto. But without these three, you are much more likely to be miserable.

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In other words: if you can’t pimp, get out of the ghetto.

Pimpin’ the ghetto

Many of my academic friends are upset at the American Historical Association’s suggestion that dissertations not be posted online for free reading. Jason Heppler of Stanford University opined that “The AHA is neglecting the public value of history”, Razib Khan‘s writes “The American Historical Association seems nuts to me,” And over at The Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen says “Ultimately, what is so frustrating about the AHA’s stance is that it seems to view the purpose of historical scholarship narrowly, as a means to securing employment.

But the only one of the criticisms I agree with is this: Patrick Wyman is the only one who gets is:

It’s a cruel irony that the historians whom this policy hurts the most – everyone other than the students of the best-known historians at the top 5-10 institutions, who are massive favorites to get jobs anyway – would actually benefit professionally from the exposure that open dissertation access provides. If this policy becomes the norm, the vast majority of the research that’s conducted will never see the light of the day

Remember that the humanities is a ghetto of low-employment and low-wages. There are four kind of people in this ghetto — four kind of humanities scholars who get their PhDs

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1. Disaster tourists who are getting the PhD because its fun — these are the same sort of people who enjoy Detroit ruin porn — and after graduating will go back to whatever world they are from. In other words, people who got a PhD because they love the humanities.

October 2011 Coalition rally

2. Losers who spend a decade getting a worthless degree and have nothing to show for it. These are the kind of people who actually live in Detroit. In other words, they are just more foolish variants of the sort of folks who joined Occupy Wall Street because they were surprised their college vacation from reality cost money.

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3. Escapees who got out, and are stronger for it. The digital humanities is one way of escaping the humanities ghetto, by combining employable skills with domain and research expertise. These are the people who get to the top outside the ghetto.

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4. Pimps who run what little economy exists in the ghetto. They control the humanities ghetto, have old boys patronage networks to fall back on, and have a great deal in a slummy part of town. In other words, folks who get tenure-track PhDs at research universities.

The American Historical Association is run by pimps for pimps — by professors at research universities, for professors at research universities. That their policy does not help the public or most PhD graduates of history programs is besides the point. They are an old boys network protecting themselves.

The AHA isn’t out to protect disaster tourists, or losers, or escapees. The AHA is by, for, and of pimps.

This isn’t too criticize pimps — if you actually love the ghetto, why not be successful in it? — but to say that not everything they do is in your best interests.

If you are in the AHA, here is your choice: You can like that, or you can get out.

Professional Jobs and Graduate Degrees

In earlier posts, I dissed the humanities ghetto and wrote this in particular about International Relations:

The obvious answer is that International Relations does not teach actually useful methods for the disciplined extraction of data. It does not teach critical thinking or logical reasoning. It teaches something that apes these skills, a rhetorical ability that impresses old scholars and does not help society.

International Relations is a non-progressive field where, by and large, it sucks to be young.

Because professors are driven by power, influence, and money, they harvest the few good job openings for those without useful skills into patronage networks, and push others aside.

Stephen J. Mexal, who Jason Heppler pointed me towards, apparently agrees:

SO SHOULD YOU GO to graduate school in the humanities? Yeah, sure, if you really want to. Why not? Just don’t expect it to have a predictable professional outcome. You cannot go to graduate school in the humanities and be placed into a job as a professor, a financial analyst, or as anything else. But graduate school in the humanities has always been this way.

So if you decide to go to grad school, remember that it’s not a place to escape the larger marketplace. You may think you are uninterested in capitalism, but capitalism is interested in you. The years that most students spend in graduate school are also prime years for building a career, and the opportunity costs of graduate school—the resources that could be spent pursuing other things—are steep, and must be taken into consideration.

Graduate school is a lot of fun. I have a PhD. I have many friends with advanced degrees in numerous fields.

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But protect yourself. Get useful skills that you enjoy using. And get paid for using them.

The Humanities, the Sciences, and Strategy

The Servants of Strategy

The humanities and the Sciences are siblings. Both serve Strategy. Graduates from the Sciences can usefully serve Strategy to the extent they understand the tools of prediction and control: improvement, and are not distracted by non-normal, revolutionary science. Graduates from the Humanities can usefully serve Strategy to the extend they understand the tools of understanding and explanation, and are not distracted by critical political agendas.

Why We Do What We Do

The purpose of Science is to “predict, control, and improve” phenomena. The sort of phenomenon that is being predicted (at a minimum), controlled (one would hope), and improved (ideally) tells you what sort of Science you are in. Cognitive Psychology focuses on cognitive behavior, “Behavioral” Psychology focuses on overt physical behavior, High-energy physics focuses on the behavior of matter under high energy conditions, and so on.

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The purpose of the Humanities is to “understand, explain, and improve” phenomena. The sort of phenomenon that is being understood (at a minimum), explained (one would hope), and improved (ideally) tells you what sort of Humanities you are in. English Literature focuses on the written works of the English language, Geography on the nature of space, Anthropology on the nature of communities and so on.

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The purpose of strategy is to “understand, control, and improve” phenomena. The sort of phenomenon that is being understood (at a minimum), controlled (one would hope), and improved (ideally) tells you what sort of Policy you are making. Political Strategy focuses on using political influence to obtain and hold offices. Business Strategy focuses on devoting capital and labor to earning a profit. Military Strategy focuses on using violence to achieve political outcomes.

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A Division of Labor

These partially-overlapping purposes make a division of labor sensible. While strategists need to understand phenomenon, they do not need to be able to explain it, thus they can rely on the explanations of others. Likewise, strategists need to control phenomenon, but they do not need to be able to predict it, thus they can rely on the models and planning of others.

Those in the Sciences are useful to the extent they master the tools of prediction and control: tight exemplars, methodology, measurement, and statistics. Those in the Sciences can become useless by being distracted with revolutionary science.

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Those in the Humanities are useful to the extent they master the tools of understanding and explanation, which largely overlaps with the “digital humanities.” Those in the Humanities can become useless by being distracted with political agendas.

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Political Agendas, Like Revolutionary Science…

I’ve written a lot about revolutionary science, so instead I’ll focus on the danger of political agendas in the Humanities. Recently, there have been three articles on the humanities. Michael Berube‘s thoughtful “The Humanities, Unruffled,” Razib Khan‘s philippic Against the Cultural Anthropologists,” Graeme Wood‘s interesting Anthropology, Inc.,” and Megan McArdle‘s stupid “What’s the Use of the PhD?.” In different ways, these four articles all focus on the same two problems:

1. What is the way to ensure that the Humanities PhD fulfills its function of understanding, explaining, and improving society
2. Does “improving” imply a pragmatic or a political objective?

These two questions are interwoven. A pragmatic Humanities ensures jobs for graduates to informing policy-makers, a pragmatic Humanities is fruitful and useful. But a political humanities that focuses on “race studies,” “gender studies,” and so on is simply a predator and parasite on academia, using academic resources to achieve a political objective. Megan McArdle’s post is prety dumb — it’s on the same level of intellectualism as an Afghan hick who dismisses astronomy by saying — but both she and Khan are reacting against the entrenched leftism of the humanities.

What You Do

It’s possible to have a fascinating, rewarding, and fun career in the Sciences or in the Humanities, in academia, in non-profits, government, or in business. Both the Humanities and the Sciences understand the same world, and their purposes overlap in their call to improve the world. How well you learn the tools and avoid the pitfalls of fulfilling these purposes can matter a lot.