Can the content marketing revolution revive study of the liberal arts?

A couple of months ago, the New York Times published an intriguing and troubling article that caught the attention of an erudite coworker, who in turn forwarded the article to me. Entitled “The Decline and Fall of the English Major”, the piece was written by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a professor of nonfiction writing who has taught at Harvard, Yale, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

One would think that, given the extreme selectivity of some of the institutions at which Mr. Klinkenborg has taught, students in his writing class would be adept writers. Unfortunately this is not generally the case.

The kind of writing that can be categorized as clear, simple and direct is becoming difficult to come by, according to Klinkenborg. He equates much of this to a decline in the teaching and study of the humanities, which he eloquently describes as a “set of disciplines that is ultimately an attempt to examine and comprehend the cultural, social and historical activity of our species through the medium of language”. And the reason for this decline is obvious, in his mind: societal pressures that serve to direct students to get the most for their (substantial) tuition investments by majoring in areas of study that will most directly lead to a good job

This is bad news for majors like English or philosophy that are less-than-prescriptive regarding what a student ought to do once graduating from college. The answer to the question of “what are these majors good for?”, as Klinkenborg explains, has always been “wait and see”, but that is, as he puts it, an answer that “satisfies no one.”

The extent of the decline of the humanities is rather staggering, as the full piece illustrates. And what does it mean for society? A generational loss of the gift of “clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.”

Even in the communications industry, an area that would seem a prime target for humanities majors, a quick poll would demonstrate that degrees in Public Relations or Marketing are far more common than those based in the humanities. And this is a good thing when it comes to developing strategy and tactics according to tried and true methodology, and knowing how to create and execute a campaign. But as we enter the Content Marketing Age where brands are expected to be purveyors of applicable insights, we are seeing an undeniable increase in a need for the clear, simple, direct writing students have so willingly bypassed.

And the study of humanities does not simply revolve around writing—a background in the art of communication typically brings with it a familiarity with rhetoric, critical reasoning and persuasion. It is one thing to be able to produce prose, but it is quite another to do so in a logical, flowing, convincing manner… Yet this is exactly the sort of ability that study of the humanities promotes.

I do not intend in any way to belittle the study of non-humanities disciplines, as there is nothing wrong with focusing one’s scholastic ambitions narrowly in order to gain a depth of knowledge on a subject. I do believe, however, that it is truly a shame that more students miss the fact that honing skills that everyone may think they have mastered—whether that be writing, reasoning or otherwise—is as valuable as memorizing terms or tactics.

Will the content marketing revolution bring back admiration for the humanities? It is hard to say. In an age where our collective attention span seems to decrease as quickly as the volume of information available to us increases, and as politicians seek to tie college ratings to both cost and whether students find good-paying jobs after college, the odds may be against these classical areas of study. As Klinkenborg concluded, “No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will.”

These challenges may simply mean that now, more than ever, there is reason to fight to promote the humanities. If we are to fill this world with compelling content, in my mind, it’s a fight worth fighting.

Are you a student of the humanities that works in the communications field? Even if you don’t, do you have an opinion on the matter? Let us know your thoughts.