Dear Mentor: Should I pursue a doctorate in the humanities?

Dear Mentor,

From a Christian perspective, why should anyone pursue a doctorate in the humanities? We shared this “Dear Mentor” question and Carmen Acevedo Butcher’s response from this post at the Emerging Scholars’ Network (ESN) website. 

In two recent columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas H. Benton (the pen name of William Pannapacker, associate professor of English at Hope College) warned students against getting a PhD in the humanities. Just in case anyone missed his point, Benton’s first column was entitled Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go and his follow-up column, Just Don’t Go, Part 2. We recommend reading both articles, but here was a key passage from the first: As things stand, I can only identify a few circumstances under which one might reasonably consider going to graduate school in the humanities: You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else. You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere. You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household. You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it. Those are the only people who can safely undertake doctoral education in the humanities. Everyone else who does so is taking an enormous personal risk, the full consequences of which they cannot assess because they do not understand how the academic-labor system works and will not listen to people who try to tell them. We weren’t satisfied with Benton’s advice, because we felt he left out important reasons why one should attempt a PhD in the Humanities. Rather than write a response ourselves, we contacted several Christian faculty in the humanities and asked them how they would respond to the question: “From a Christian perspective, why should anyone pursue a doctorate in the humanities?” Below, Carmen Acevedo Butcher of Shorter College offers her response to the question. Brett Foster of Wheaton offers his answer here, and responses from seven other Christian faculty and postdocs can be read here.


From guest mentor Carmen Acevedo Butcher

In several columns for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dr. William Pannapacker (under the nom de plume Thomas H. Benton) makes a clear case for the existence of what one colleague calls an academic job market that is “blood on the water,” and has been for several decades. In one of these well-written, excellently argued articles, Pannapacker advises “that the only people who can safely consider seeking a graduate degree in the humanities are wealthy, connected, supported by a partner, or already employed and seeking enhanced credentials.”

If my young son or teenage daughter decides one day to attend graduate school with the goal of teaching at a university or college, I will e-mail my child links to Pannapacker’s cogent, sound-the-alarm Chronicle articles because no one can deny that he has a point, several points, in fact. Anyone who goes to graduate school thinking that it will be a luxurious, lax time of fun and games followed by solid job prospects has the entirely wrong idea, at least according to my experience, and I would want my children to do as Jesus advises in the Gospel of Luke: “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:28). Pannapacker’s articles are a good warning against disillusionment.

When I was in graduate school in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Pannapacker’s dire truths were also true. As a graduate assistant and later a teaching assistant, I made a missionary salary, by which I mean a subsistence. But to me at twenty-four, twenty-five, and on through the master’s and dissertation, which I finished at twenty-nine, this small salary gave me my first taste of a larger freedom. I could pay my own bills, and I could live on my own in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in which the living-room-and-kitchen-and-dining-room-are-really-all-one-room, free to explore my many burning questions about literature and about words. I was not wealthy, not connected, not supported by a partner (I was single), nor was I otherwise employed; I was a graduate student making a few hundred dollars each month.

As a graduate student, I had an also tiny basement office, sans windows, and I remember once that a full professor came down to ask me a question about a paper I had written and, surveying my office, said, “Hmmm, Spartan, what?” I had no posters on the windowless walls, just a few library books and textbooks on shelves — I was making my own internal sunshine through the arduous process of studying. I was joyful because I was learning. I have discovered that I am happiest as a student, and I believed then as I believe now that there is no holier profession than that of remaining a beginner my whole life, of learning. And just as those who must write will tell you that they must write, regardless of whether they are published or not, so those who must continue asking questions, must continue asking questions; and often graduate school with its, in my experience, very helpful senior professors is the best environment in which to ask hard, probing questions about language, literature, science, medicine, music, art, technology, history, political science, psychology, sociology, any field. It gave me the opportunity, before marriage and kids, to delve into the Bible and eat God’s Word and nourish my soul and study Scripture and medieval literature in intimate, soul-changing ways, and for that, I am eternally grateful. Even when I was a stay-at-home mom and not teaching, my graduate-school years nourished my soul, giving me new ways to consider the world. I believe that — had I never taught and never published a book — my children would still have benefited from my graduate-school experience because I emerged with a new, deeper, and richer perspective on God, on my self, and on those around me.

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