Gene Jarrett, a member of the Class of 1997 and the William S. Tod Professor of English, became dean of the faculty in 2021. In addition to being a renowned literary scholar, he is a gifted academic administrator devoted to liberal arts education. I have asked him to share a few thoughts on the enduring importance of the humanistic disciplines and their value in higher education and society. — C.L.E.

Gene Jarrett
Photo: Denise Applewhite

Euphoria filled me in fall 1993. After my graduation from New York City’s Stuyvesant High School that year, I matriculated at Princeton University.

Here, I planned to continue concentrating on the high-level mathematics and sciences in which I had been excelling, and which, I thought, would best prepare me for professional—and, admittedly, financial—success.

During Orientation week, I stepped onto Princeton’s campus, and discovered the “Undergraduate Announcement 1993-94” curled in my Forbes College mailbox. The booklet, which introduced me to the plethora of academic departments and programs, major and certificate requirements, and courses that the University had to offer, challenged my academic myopia.

“Using the general curricular framework,” the announce- ment advised, “each undergraduate at Princeton is encouraged to develop an academic program in response to personal aspirations and interests.” Encouraged, I took courses taught by Toni Morrison, Arnold Rampersad, and Hans Aarsleff, among other outstanding faculty in the humanities, or the field of study focused on the history, languages, philosophy, art, and aesthetics of human culture. These courses changed my life.

I decided to major in English language and literature, with an emphasis in African American literary studies. In subsequent decades, my doctoral education at Brown University and my scholarship as a professor sought to advance this field of study. In my return to Princeton in fall 2021 as the dean of the faculty, I assumed administrative responsibility for ensuring the success and well-being of the faculty and academic professionals at the University, not only in the humanities but also in the social sciences, natural sciences, and engineering.

The story of my intellectual and professional growth, alongside the comparable stories I have come across of people who likewise thrived from humanistic learning, compels me to critique how much the humanities have been publicly devalued in recent years.

The humanities uniquely enlighten us on how to live in and interpret the world. This field strengthens our grasp of the legacy of human intelligence and interactions. It guides us on how to trace the emergence and evolution of ideas across human history. It documents how language, art, and other kinds of cultural expression mediate these ideas. And it demonstrates how to conceive, communicate, and celebrate human life through imagination and creativity.

Alarmist opinion pieces try to convince us that, in college, majoring in the humanities is too risky.

A widely circulated New Yorker essay last year on “The End of the English Major” cited statistics on the decline of undergraduate humanities majors and course enrollments, and doctoral student job prospects in the humanities professoriate.

Sensational articles of this kind perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy: the myth that the humanities, in their association with the love of learning or “the life of the mind,” detract from the “hard” or “direct” skills needed for professional careers. The “humanities crisis”-mongering, if I may call it that, has had serious consequences.

Barbara R. Snyder, president of the Association of American Universities, and Peter McPherson, former president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, co-leaders of the Boyer 2030 Commission of distinguished higher education leaders, concluded that the misleading public narrative that a humanities major cannot “get a job” exacerbates the “shrinking enrollments in fields most invested in cultivating transformative education, and in humanities departments particularly.” The analytical skills born and cultivated from the humanities prepare students for both the academic and nonacademic careers that seek to address the most pressing problems facing humankind.

“Colleges and universities have a critical role to play” in countering this trend, write workforce expert Aneesh Raman and Jobs for the Future President and CEO Maria Flynn in a New York Times column titled, “When Your Technical Skills Are Eclipsed, Your Humanity Will Matter More Than Ever.” They continue: “Over the past few decades, we have seen a prioritization of science and engineering, often at the expense of the humanities.

That calibration will need to be reconsidered.”

Of course, I believe that science and engineering deserve prioritization in higher education—which they have rightly earned at Princeton—given the remarkable scientific innovations in quantum science, bioengineering, and artificial intelligence, for example, that are changing the world. But the existential questions that these and other scientific fields have also produced for humankind mean that we must resist the depreciation of the humanities in liberal arts education. The humanities are primed to help us tackle these questions.

As we reckon with the new scientific technologies shaping humankind, we must simultaneously formulate the very ethical and cultural concepts of the humanities that can help center these technologies on the public good. We also must relish the humanities for their own sake—for the intellectual authority they retain in describing what makes us all so human.

The humanities still matter because our humanity still matters.