What Are “Applied Humanities”?

As I mentioned earlier this summer, historians at Bethel are now part of a larger Department of History, Philosophy, and Political Science, with each of those core majors — plus three of our interdisciplinary programs — culminating in a common capstone course that I’ll be teaching this fall: Applied Humanities Seminar.

For the most part, I’m intrigued and even excited by these changes. While I’ll miss having a history-specific research seminar, I think we’ll keep the ethos of that course: not just the Monday evening grad school vibe, but the distinct role of the instructor. I’m going to be learning as much as about our fall topic (health care) as our students, but that was exactly what it felt like to lead a history seminar where each student had a distinct research topic. As in our old senior seminar, my job as capstone professor is not to be a content expert, but a facilitator who enables students to acquire knowledge and demonstrate their accumulated skills in research, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication.

So while I’ve been reading about health care topics, much of what I’ve been up to this month is arranging for actual experts to join us throughout the semester, people who work within health care and can share their experience and knowledge — e.g., a nursing professor who teaches Bethel’s Intro to Healthcare class, a congressional staffer who works on health-related legislation, a chaplain for a local hospital, a dentist who works for our state health department, and a medical researcher who works on pandemic responses. (Not entirely incidentally, two of those guests are graduates of our department.) I’m also planning at least one site visit this fall, perhaps to focus on the medical device industry.

All of that not only reflects the nature of my facilitating role, but the adjective in the course title.

So what do we mean by “applied humanities”?

As we thought about what we wanted out of a capstone course, we did want to emphasize those things that our disciplines have in common with each other. Studying health care — like war or sexuality or race or democracy or any of the other topics in our curriculum — lets us do what humanists do: ask fundamental questions about the human experience, in the process becoming more adept at identifying and evaluating sources, analyzing and synthesizing evidence, expressing ourselves and listening to others, and living with complexity. We get there through different disciplinary routes, but such outcomes have long been common to our majors.

So why add applied to the mix? What’s wrong with simply doing humanities in their own right?

Nothing! As I always tell Intro to History students at the other end of our curriculum, not all scholarship in our discipline has to concern itself with “the usable past.” We spend a good amount time considering the dangers of trying to make the past “useful,” and given that most students describe the pull of the History major in terms of passion, curiosity, and even love, I’ve always been hesitant to make students justify their interests in any other terms. In general, I want to encourage them to study the past for the past’s sake, whether or not it seems to have any application to the present or future.

Which is precisely why the single biggest assignment in our new capstone course is still an individual research and writing project in which students pick a topic about which they’re personally curious, then use the tools and insights of their major discipline to answer a question about the history, philosophy, or politics of health care. (To help model this, members of our faculty will join us in October, and I’ve invited a historian of medicine and religion to Zoom in one night.)

A 2009 photo, but still a timely debate – Creative Commons (Jorge Elías)

But in the process, I think that they’re going to better understand issues in health care that are not purely historical, abstract, or academic. They’ll understand how health care has changed over time, but also what hasn’t changed — and perhaps how past events (like pandemics) can help illuminate the present. Debates in ethics and public policy will not confine themselves to the pages of academic journals, but recur in the stories we hear from our guest speakers and on our site visit.

In a sense, I want students to think of themselves as constituting something like a think tank: what are we doing if not putting smart people together to try to understand a contemporary issue and suggest solutions to its problems? Not only will they start in September by reading health care analyses from actual think tanks at different points along the political spectrum, but in the last weeks of the semester our students will come together in small groups to dig into a particular contemporary problem related to health care and propose solutions to it, in a semester-ending presentation to our faculty.

That’s part of what we have in mind with adding applied to the humanities. But I’ve also suggested that we see this seminar as having a different kind of application…

As our enrollments have dropped in the last decade, it’s become clearer and clearer that students haven’t lost interest in our fields… but they have lost confidence in the ability of majors like History and Philosophy to prepare them for gainful employment. (At least at Bethel, the numbers for Political Science have been a bit more stable, in part because it offers a few more defined professional pathways.) Having spent or borrowed an enormous amount of money to pay for private college, they want some reassurance that they’ll be able to find a well-paying job after graduation.

Now, I’ve separately made the argument that studying the humanities is, counter-intuitively, a wise investment, perhaps even better suited than more obviously “applied” fields in our list of majors at preparing students not just for an initial job, but a fifty-year career in a fast-changing economy. Not that this is the only kind of value to our kind of education, but I do think that studying history, philosophy, and political science hones skills that translate well to virtually every career — and our programs all set students up for grad school, law school, business school, and other kind of continuing studies that will almost certainly be part of their post-college life. It’s no accident that well over 90% of our department’s recent alumni told us earlier this year that their majors developed their skills in writing, critical thinking, and research — about the same share that felt well prepared for post-baccalaureate study.

These abilities are precisely the kinds of “soft skills” that employers always say they want in employees — and sometimes struggle to find. And they’re central to our capstone course.

But employers have also emphasized a couple of other things that have not always been strengths of our departments: while each of our senior seminars did provide the kind of big, culminating project that employers sometimes find lacking in American colleges, our capstones weren’t necessarily meant to push students (a) to work together in order (b) to address a “real world” problem.

It makes some sense: if I were in charge of hiring for most any organization in the public, private, or nonprofit sector, I’d want to see evidence that potential employees can not only ask and answer questions by themselves, but as part of a team. And while I’d like to think that I’d be open to the idea that, say, a History grad would be able to translate their seemingly esoteric college studies to “the real world,” I’d be more confident in hiring them if I could also see a sample of that translation: i.e., that students who have spent three years studying topics like the Roman Empire, colonialism, and the suffrage movement could demonstrate concretely how the skills they’d picked up could help them study and articulate something more directly relevant to my organization’s mission and work.

So even if they’re not planning to enter health care or related services (which is where about 10% of our graduates do end up working), I’m hopeful that Applied Humanities will not only prepare our graduates for employment, but prepare them to talk more persuasively about their skills and experiences with potential employers.

One book from my summer reading list that I didn’t get to…

Of course, even as I write those paragraphs, I worry that I’m just capitulating to the instrumentalism that has led students away from our disciplines in the first place. Aren’t I just giving in to the logic of the same market that devalues what we do?

Perhaps. I don’t see any choice other than to be pragmatic, however, and I’d rather give students more reasons to embrace their loves of history, philosophy, and political science. And even if the part of me that is deeply suspicious of the unjust, dehumanizing tendencies of capitalism worries that something is lost in being too responsive to “the needs of employers,” I nonetheless think there are two other valuable applications for humanists studying a topic like health care.

First, we’re not just preparing employees, but citizens, who live in a country where health care is not just a sector of the economy, but a hot button political issue in which multiple levels of government are regularly involved. If all that comes of this seminar is that these students are better prepared to understand what’s at stake when they vote for candidates, it will not have been a waste.

But something more should happen: our Christian college students should be better prepared to understand what it means to love their neighbors as themselves. To consider why the health — physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual — of people made in God’s image is important, to recognize how everything from individual choices to structural injustices can impair that health, and to ask what we are then called to do for each other. I’m convinced that history, philosophy, and political science can offer such insights, that health care is not simply a field for the health and natural sciences.

And when better to ask such questions than in the middle of an ongoing pandemic?