Are the Humanities Classist?

When Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls first premiered, critics challenged the Oberlin College alumna’s choice of subject: four white, 20-something women who, according to many reviewers, epitomized a new strain of privileged, affluent millennials. These critics often alluded to what they regarded as an emerging sociological phenomenon, the trustafarian: a young, urban bohemian who relies on a high socioeconomic status as a means of funding his or her professedly subversive lifestyle. Dunham’s critics underscored the character of Jessa Johansson—the show’s keffiyeh-wearing, cosmopolitan nonconformist—as a particularly archetypal trustafarian; the image she presents juxtaposes a disdain for capitalist ethics with a reverence for high fashion and upper-class sentiments.

During my time at Pomona College, I have come across several Jessa Johanssons, students from wealthier-than-average backgrounds who—through their tastes in fashion, music, and other art forms—at the very least belong to a hipster subculture that shares many qualities with the supposed trustafarian lifestyle. Furthermore, as an English major, I have noticed that such students tend, more often than not, to veer away from STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—and move toward the humanities. Indeed, to confirm the link between the humanities and the stereotype of the affluent bohemian, one need look no further than Girls, where the four protagonists incorporate a love for art and literature into their iconoclastic self-images.

Now, I should clarify that I do not necessarily want to embrace the trustafarian pejorative—I question that the label indicates a hypocrisy or disingenuousness behind the subculture. While I have certainly come across a few students who appear merely to be mimicking a sort of trendy disillusionment, I have come across many more who seem sincere in their distrust of the capitalist mainstream.

I believe that at heart, a desire to affirm one’s individuality, the desire to exist outside a prescriptive system is what guides this group of students. The rivalry between art and capitalism is not one that developed recently; the trope of the starving artist has lasted for centuries. 

At the same time, however, I firmly believe that the hipster subculture at Pomona, in spite of its challenges to materialism and commercialism, promotes a subtle form of class privilege. Students often appear unaware that their supposedly subversive purchases only serve to advertise their high standing within the class structure. The hipster aesthetic thus represents not anti-capitalism but rather the commoditization of an anti-capitalist idea. After all, the ability to rebel against the capitalist mainstream requires, ironically, a type of capital in itself. Those from affluent backgrounds are the most able to disdain ‘the system’ simply because they have the least need to worry about operating within it. For everyone else, the act of challenging the class hierarchy is much more dangerous. 

As a major in the humanities, I often struggle to reconcile my idealized notion of bohemian, anti-capitalist culture with the exclusionism that it entails. Students in the humanities, especially at relatively progressive liberal arts colleges such as those in Claremont, often pride themselves on their courage. They frequently believe that they are making a bold choice, eschewing the supposed convenience and practicality of a STEM degree for the sake of their integrity and their need to study what they love. If I am being honest, I tend to hold a similar belief; given the recent stream of articles eulogizing the humanities, it is difficult not to feel as though I am being tenacious or daring by majoring in English. 

I wonder, however, if the widespread perception of the humanities as impractical is due not as much to any inherent shortcomings within the disciplines themselves but instead to the privileged aesthetic that accompanies them. Moreover, although we recognize this aesthetic—insofar as we recognize it at all—as a result of the challenges that humanities majors face in a competitive economy, I would argue that it also serves to cause these challenges. When we associate the humanities with an upper-class, pseudo-bohemian image, we send the message that these disciplines are the province of an increasingly smaller social group. 

To combat irrelevance, whether imagined or real, perhaps we ought to revolutionize the ways in which our culture represents and commoditizes the humanities rather than denigrate the disciplines themselves. Although I cannot deny that there may be a greater market demand for the skills that STEM majors learn in the lab and classroom, I also believe that the skills learned in humanities departments, particularly critical thinking and rhetoric, are useful. If the departments need to adapt at all, they should thus focus on their brand more than on their fundamental academic philosophies. Humanities departments might try, for example, to rely less on a set of symbols that—though by no means absent from STEM departments—seem to encourage a sort of race and class-based exclusivity. The prevalence of social criticism in recent decades marks a move in this direction, but it does not, in my opinion, accomplish enough. We need to emphasize that the humanities, as the name suggests, speak to the experiences of not only an elite subgroup, but also humanity as a whole.

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