In Defense of Your Humanities Degree: 5 Reasons Why Studying the Humanities Isn’t a Waste of Time

By Danika McClure

In the wake of a graduate shortage in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), degrees in the humanities and soft sciences have increasingly been deemed as frivolous and less valuable to the American job market. Shortages in technical industries across the country have forced lawmakers to take action, often by decreasing funding to the arts and soft sciences in favor of colleges which produce more STEM graduates.

Rosemary G. Feal, who directs the Modern Language Association of America, attributes the decline in funding for the arts and humanities in the United States particularly to “legislators who themselves have not experienced first-hand the value of studying the humanities.”

The most recent attacks on the arts and soft sciences come from Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, who told members of the associated press last month that he planned on reallocating the state’s higher education budget, giving more funding to colleges which produced the most STEM graduates.  Ironically enough, Bevin received his undergraduate degree in Japanese studies from Washington and Lee University, a private liberal arts institution.

By reallocating the state’s budget, Bevin hopes to curb the state’s STEM graduate shortage. But Bevin is just the latest in a series of lawmakers that don’t see the value in a humanities education, buying into the all too common myth of the unemployable liberal arts major.

As has been noted numerous times by educators everywhere, completing a degree in the social sciences, humanities, and the arts does not automatically condemn you to a life of retail or unemployment. The opposite, in fact may be true, as studying the liberal arts teaches students a variety of skills most sought after by employers. Rather than looking for technical skills, 95 percent of employers, prefer candidates who display “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems,” skillsets which humanities majors are more likely to have upon graduation.

While there are strong voices present in politics and even the education sector, there is proven value in studying the humanities, and as a person who has spent a large majority of her life in the arts and humanities, I’ve found many of the skills I learned in these “frivolous” courses more valuable to my work than any technical education I received while attending college.  Here are 5 reasons why pursuing a humanities degree isn’t a waste of time.

  1. Thinking Only About Shortages in the STEM Fields Will Oversupply the Workforce

While it cannot be understated that America is in the midst of a STEM crisis, reducing funding for programs outside of the hard sciences will ultimately oversupply the workforce in the scientific and technological sphere. After all, this isn’t the first time that the U.S. has experienced a workforce shortage; according to The Washington Post, this is a mistake the U.S. has perpetuated previously. A generation ago, lawyers made more money than investment bankers; but in the present day, the workforce is oversaturated with law graduates, while the investment banking industry is constantly searching for qualified candidates to fill positions.

While America does need to produce a certain number of STEM graduates in order to keep up with the global economy, there are other complex issues which graduates will have to confront in future years–issues which will require adaptability, in a variety of different environments.

  1. Humanities Education Gives Employees a Global Perspective

As business evolves to be ever globally-minded, business owners, civic leaders, and politicians are increasingly looking to understand the cultural and social climate of countries around the globe, and are counting on humanities graduates to better understand the cultural, historical, and political differences present in these countries.

Many large and revered corporations have failed to expand into overseas markets by ignoring cultural differences present in those markets.

“Some of the most successful American companies, including Walmart in Germany and TJK in Holland have failed overseas,” explains Professor Harry Lane, who teaches in Northeastern University’s School of Business, “because they did not understand how cultural differences would affect their business models.”

Lane, who has spent the past 30 years teaching individuals how to adjust to overseas markets, adds, “Thanks to globalization, an executive deals with more organizations, governments, and people, many of which are vastly different from the entities the executive is accustomed to and from each other.”

Those who have spent time studying the humanities and social sciences are able and ready to help their employer adapt to a variety of situations, partially because of their ability to adapt to any given situation and their proficient social skills, but also because humanities graduates have likely dipped their toes in a variety of social subjects including politics, sociology, anthropology, and language. These skillsets and areas of study allow graduates to adapt more quickly to the history and culture of a region, adding value to employers who seek to quickly develop relationships and transition into lucrative interactions in unfamiliar territories.

  1. Having an In-Demand Degree Doesn’t Necessarily Guarantee Job Placement

Given the fact that college has become increasingly expensive over the past decade, it makes sense that people are choosing majors based on their “employability factor.” Recent studies indicate that nearly 82 percent of 2015 graduates researched their field of study before choosing a degree path at their college.

If obtaining a certain degree guaranteed you a job, this kind of long term thinking would make perfect sense. But many professors, such as Jay Halfond of Boston University, have been speaking out against this line of thinking. In an interview with EvoLLLution, the professor notes, “In my view, it is dangerous and even corrupting to proceed down a path that shows that higher education ensures lucrative jobs soon after graduation. But we need to do a far better job demonstrating the relevance of a broad, general education, while linking what we teach to what is critical in the professional world.”

While there are jobs that require certain skillsets affiliated with specific degrees, generally speaking, your degree may have little to do with your career success. Recent research indicates that 62 percent of college graduates are working in jobs which require a degree, but only 27 percent of graduates are working in careers related to their major.

So what are employers looking for?

Many companies have begun seeking out candidates who have skillsets that are particularly developed among humanities majors: those who are adaptable, possess high levels of emotional intelligence, and are able to fit into the company’s pre established company culture.  That is to say, employers are less worried about your degree program and GPA, and are paying more attention to your personality, adaptability, and your predisposition to upholding company values.

  1. Humanities Courses Teach You How to Grapple with Uncertainty

In many STEM courses, students are presented with factual information and straightforward answers. Humanities classrooms, by contrast, are more likely to present students with material that is subjective, in which analyzing and considering a question is more important that giving a correct answer.

John Horgan, a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology explains his own defense of the humanities, writing “The humanities are subversive. They undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific. This skepticism is especially important when it comes to claims about humanity, about what we are, where we came from, and even what we can be and should be.”

He adds later that by the end of his courses, his students will learn to question all authorities including himself. “You’ll question what you’ve been told about the nature of reality, about the purpose of life, about what it means to be a good person. Because that, for me, is the point of the humanities: they keep us from being trapped by our own desire for certainty.”

  1. The Job Prospects and Income for Humanities Majors Aren’t as Dire as Has Been Reported

UNEMPLOYMENT RATES danika mcclure

Image Source: cew.georgetown.edu

As grim as the job prospects seem to be for humanities majors right out of school, studies show that obtaining a job isn’t quite as difficult as is typically reported. In fact, the average unemployment rate for new graduates in the humanities is right on par with those with computer science and math degrees (9% v 9.1%).

Other studies indicate that humanities majors end up making more money on average than their peers who study the hard sciences. In a column written for The Wall Street Journal, Scott Samuelson cites a study performed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities which found that “at peak earning ages (56-60 years) workers who majored as undergraduates in the humanities or social sciences earn annually on average about $2000 more than those who majored as undergraduates in professional, or pre-professional fields.” Once again, employers were looking to hire graduates with the ability “to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems.”

Author Bio: Danika is a musician from the Northwest who sometimes takes a 30 minute break from feminism to enjoy a tv show. You can follow her on twitter @sadwhitegrrl


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The Liberal Arts Student’s Guide to STEM

Even if you’re a liberal arts / humanities student, you will probably have to take a course in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) at some point in your college career.  Check out this new article I wrote on how to succeed in STEM, even if you think you’re “just not good at math.”


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What’s the point of a college education?

There have been a lot of articles questioning the value of a college education recently – particularly the value of a liberal arts education. Take, for example, Frank Bruni’s The Imperiled Promise of College and Michelle Singletary’s Not All College Majors Are Created Equal. These articles warn against choosing majors that tend to result in low-paying jobs (or no jobs at all). That’s why I was glad to read Alina Tugend’s article Vocation or Exploration? Pondering the Purpose of College, which argues that college students can and should study the humanities. As Ms. Tugend writes, the question is this: is the purpose of college to “ensure a good job after graduation,” or “to give students a broad and deep humanities education that teaches them how to think and write critically? Or can a college education do both?” I’m going with door number three.

In the article, Ms. Tugend notes that what students major in has a greater impact on their future earnings than in previous decades.

So does that mean I should urge our son to pursue a degree he doesn’t have any interest in because it may provide him with a higher-paying job — or any job, for that matter — after college?

No, Professor Carnevale said, because if you don’t like what you do, you won’t do it well. The point is that “young people now need to have a strategy,” he said. “If you major in art, realize you will have to get a master’s degree. The economic calculus has changed.”

I like that line – if you don’t like what you do, you won’t do it well.

When I was in college, my most rewarding classes were in the humanities. I specialized in medieval history and got an M.A. in Art History before I majored and got a job in Computer Science. Do I regret studying history and art history, where job options are extremely limited? Not in the least. I’m glad I have a background in the humanities – I think it makes me a more well-rounded, knowledgeable, appreciative person. (However, I’m lucky that I didn’t go into debt to get my degrees. If I did owe lots of money, perhaps I wouldn’t be so pro-liberal arts.) One of the best things about Columbia, my alma mater, is that it has a Core Curriculum. All undergrads, no matter what their major, are required to take classes like Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, where they have literally hundreds of pages of reading each week on everything from Homer to Dante to Freud. This was probably the highlight of my academic career.

Lastly, I was quoted in a Crain’s New York Business article last week – Goodbye, ‘bamboo ceiling’ – Corporate barriers spur Asian-Americans to start fast-growing enterprises, by Emily Laermer.

When Stefanie Weisman was Stuyvesant’s valedictorian in 1999, she said, the school was about half Asian. She described her time there as ‘the most intense four years of my life’ because of its competitiveness.

‘The students there are bright and hardworking, partly because there are so many Asian-American students,” she said, citing the influence of ‘tiger parents.’ . . . .

It’s also possible that tiger parenting ultimately backfires. Ms. Weisman, who is writing a book about academic success, said that those who enjoy learning – rather than studying because their parents insist – tend to do better professionally.


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Want to increase the number of students in STEM? Try grade inflation

There’s been a lot of talk these days about how to get more students to study STEM (science/technology/engineering/math) in college. Of course, one of the problems is that the math/science education provided in many high schools is inadequate. But there are also lots of students with exceptional educational backgrounds who decide they just can’t hack it in STEM. See the article “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard),” by Christopher Drew in The New York Times, from November 4, 2011.

Here’s my half-serious suggestion: use grade inflation. Elite students are used to getting straight-As and stellar SAT scores. Throw them into an environment where they’re suddenly getting Bs and Cs, and of course they’re going to freak out. The humanities have endured grade inflation and survived. Many teachers now use A+s to signal extraordinary achievement. Honestly, I don’t care if you raise grades in STEM or lower grades in the humanities, but there should be some kind of standardization. Why should STEM courses have completely different grading criteria? Teachers can do whatever they want; there’s almost no regulation. If an engineering student is struggling just to get a C and sees his roommate earning an easy A in anthropology, he’s not going to be happy.

Top universities also need to offer more practical STEM courses, not just theoretical. Students who can’t or don’t want to join academia are given short shrift. I had to take a continuing education web design course at NYU one summer because there was nothing like that offered at Columbia. The requirements for STEM majors should also be less restrictive. As a Computer Science major at Columbia, I couldn’t take a lot of CS courses that interested me because they didn’t fulfill the requirements for my concentration, and I didn’t have the time or money to pursue them. Instead I had to take a bunch of required theory courses that I detested and never got any use out of.

As a side note, Sesame Street is also getting in on the math/science craze. I’ll be interested to check back in 15 years and see if it made a difference.

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Re: Not all college majors are created equal

I just posted this on The Washington Post‘s website, in response to the article “Not all college majors are created equal,” by Michelle Singletary. The original article is here.

Sometimes, getting a good education and pursuing what you love are worth more than the immediate economic benefits of an in-demand major. Should you really go into engineering and hate what you do for the rest of your life? Yes, more people should consider going to state schools so they can take on less debt, but you know what, this recession isn’t going to last forever. There will be a time when there will be more jobs out there and English majors and maybe even architects will be able to support themselves. The author wants students to know what they want to do after they graduate. That seems like wishful thinking to me. Can most people really carve their career paths in stone when they’re 18 years old? I can’t even do it now, when I’m… well, never mind. If you do what the author wants, you’ll just have more people starting out in STEM (science/ technology/ engineering/ math) majors, finding out they don’t like it, and switching majors – perhaps even delaying their graduation and costing them more money – or sticking with it and quitting their unfulfilling STEM-related jobs in a couple of years. (See stats here)


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Are we raising a generation of Philistines?

That’s what I thought when I studied computer science. My classmates had trouble understanding basic written instructions. They were outraged when they had to read articles that were more than 10 years old. Most of them looked down their noses at liberal arts majors. Half of my professors didn’t know the difference between “it’s” and “its.” You would think they could at least have done a spell check.

According to Alexander Astin in What Matters in College, engineering majors actually suffer a decline in things like writing ability, cultural awareness, and political participation. I know that STEM classes are becoming privileged in this society, but I fear a world dominated by technocrats.


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Liberal Arts Easier?

The Wall Street Journal published the article “Students Pick Easier Majors Despite Less Pay,” by Joe Light and Rachel Emma Silverman, on 11/9/11.  A few comments.  I dislike the use of the word “easier” – I know lots of people who find science and technology easier than the liberal arts.  They’d much rather code than write a history paper or read a book.  It’s just more natural for them.  I also disagree with the statement that “introductory courses [in science and technology] are often difficult and abstract.”  In my experience, the introductory courses are the easiest, and the advanced courses are killer.  But maybe that’s just the program I went to.  As for math/science/tech classes taking more time, well, I probably studied more as a history major than as a CS major, because I had hundreds of pages of reading to do every week.  Maybe there are some liberal arts majors that take less time, but history is not one of them.  I know that lots of students are being pushed to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, but we shouldn’t forget that the humanities are important – and challenging – too!


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