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


 Whether you’re studying the humanities or STEM, The Secrets of Top Students can help you get better grades!

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.”


Want more tips on college success?  Check out The Secrets of Top Students.

 

8 Deep Study Tips for Math Students (Guest Post)

By Harry Red.  Harry is a developer and math fanatic who helps students at exammastery.com

Deep study is a rare commodity. It’s what happens when you’re studying at your peak ability. Mathematics definitely requires lots of deep study. But it doesn’t really come naturally to us. With some practice though, you can train yourself to fall into deep study mode more easily.

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1. Make a dent

Ever spent a whole day avoiding the actual hard work you wanted to do? Ended up doing busywork instead?

Everyone’s done that.

Fortunately there’s a way out of it: ignore things that are trivial but urgent (chores etc.) for a while, and make a dent in that difficult, non-urgent thing you’re somehow avoiding. Make some small amount of progress on it.

It doesn’t have to be big. It may take several attempts. It may be just a vague, uncertain feeling of having understood the subject a tiny bit better. But it can release a lot of anxiety – conscious or otherwise – and give you some energy and insight so that you can later nail the thing completely.

In math, small insights can make a really big difference towards understanding some larger concept. A single, apt diagram, a carefully remembered assumption, or an unwritten, abstract and seemingly trivial equation or mathematical fact can be enough to set your mind on a marathon to finally connect all those little dents that you made when you last studied the subject.

2. Jump around when working on questions

At least two bad things happen when you’re neck-deep in math: tunnel vision and myopia. Not seeing other parts of a question, and focusing too much on the minutiae of just one aspect of it.

Both waste time and increase your risk of failure.

So next time you find yourself stuck in tunnel vision or math myopia, stop yourself. Feel free to jump around. Go back to the question and pick out key words or concepts. See if you can quickly verify given results. (Trig identities are usually a good target for this.) Recall definitions – maybe write them down.

The point is to engage with the material at varying levels of breadth and intensity. Actively avoid the thing you were working on: it brought you into tunnel vision, so you want to get as far away from it as possible.

This can save you both study- and exam-time. Both are extremely valuable.

3. Change your views on proofs using the ‘scaffold’ method

Writing a mathematical proof can be much like constructing a building.

First, you need a construction plan, or at least a rough idea of where to begin. Then comes some scaffolding and preparation. Then the actual construction – putting things in place so they’ll stay there when the scaffolding is removed.

Suppose you’re asked to prove something in an exam. You understand clearly what you’re asked to prove, you’ve broken down the problem into smaller parts as best you can, and you’ve got a few ideas of how to get from one thing to another and then to something that is at least close to what you’re asked to show. However, something is still stopping you from actually writing down the proof, because you’re not sure you’ve got the details figured out correctly.

Cases like these are where the scaffold method is most useful. The idea is this: write the scaffolds in, then do the actual construction work.

That is, don’t worry too much about the intermediate steps and their mathematical rigour for the moment. Instead, write down what you are able to write down; for instance, any intermediate steps, leaving some free lines between them. This will set the problem out more clearly in your mind, and may even trigger memories of similar proofs that you’ve worked through during revision.

4. Don’t neglect boring stuff

As strange as it may sound, you need to be aware of how bored you are while you’re studying.

When you’re in the ‘bored’ mode, you’re just trying to get by. It’s likely that you’ll miss very important things if you just coast through a part of your subject without conjuring up actual interest for it.

You need to prevent this. Monitor your boredom levels (only you can do that accurately), and take a break whenever they spike. (When I say ‘monitor’ here, I don’t mean make lists and charts. Just use your subjective judgement.)

Taking a break in such situations is effective because everyone’s level of enthusiasm for something drops once they’ve spent a long time expending mental energy on it. Enthusiasm is replenished with rest and time spent doing more enjoyable or relaxing activities.

So take that break. You will lose a bit of study time, but as long as your time-management is not too far off you won’t lose anything important. Try not to think of this as lost study time. A difficult, less interesting subject is best studied with a fresh mind, not an exhausted, interest-starved one that will make all the wrong connections at the worst possible time.

Sound obvious? Maybe so. You should be taking breaks anyway. But monitoring your boredom levels is a good way of measuring a lot of things in one go. Boredom is complicated. Taking that extra break because your boredom indicator goes critical will help you avoid missing important bits of your subject.

5. Watch out for behaviour deemed ‘interesting’

Sometimes you’ll get questions like this:

a) Investigate the function f(x), particularly its properties with regard to |some topic on the course|. (4 marks)

b) Draw suitable conclusions from this. (2 marks)

I call this a professorial question – it’s asking you something in a roundabout way. These questions might explicitly ask you for ‘interesting’ behaviour, or they might just instruct you to ‘draw suitable conclusions’ from some mathematical argument. In a lot of cases, what they’re really asking you to do is to link the question to ‘interesting’ behaviour that you’ve previously studied in your course. Physics exams are especially prone to this.

It’s like you almost need to know what to do in advance.

The trick is to identify ‘interesting’ special behaviour before the exam starts.

Whenever your lecturer, teacher or textbook goes on about so-called interesting behaviour, pay extra attention. You may be looking at something that is more exam-relevant than you think.

However, it’s not always easy to spot when this is happening. Sometimes it’s obvious. Sometimes you can smell interesting behaviour when one part of a course links in to a much larger field.

For instance, in a course on algebra you may be told that there’s no general algebraic solution for any polynomial of fifth degree or greater, and to get usable numbers out of such equations, we usually need to develop numerical techniques for solving these, which in turn is a huge topic in mathematics.

6. Start with a long attention span

Mathematics contains a lot of information. Simply reading it will take up much of your mental bandwidth.

You’ll need to have a big enough attention span to process everything and avoid missing important bits. The tiniest detail can make all the difference.

But nowadays, it’s hard to start anything with a long attention span. So you’ll likely need to spend (read: waste) time trying to adjust your attention span.

Here’s what you can do. Before you start a difficult exercise, go read a slightly heady but non-math text for 15 minutes. Then start that exercise.

You’ll find that your attention span has expanded a bit.

The reason why I’d recommend reading a non-math book is that you don’t want to exhaust the math faculty of your brain. See what kind of books will work best for you.

Best part? Over time, you can read entire books like this. I’ve read The Book of Five Rings, The Art of War and most of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos using only this method.

7. Return to neutral + leave study hooks for tomorrow

It’s hard to get motivated to do a long, hard math study session.

Here’s what you do. Keep an eye out for interesting topics or problems that you’ve just encountered near the end of a study session. Then, don’t study them. Restrain yourself and leave those topics or exercises for the next session.

That gives you an incentive to get back into the material even if you are distracted and don’t start your next study session when you intended to.

There’s a passive variation on this – call it returning to neutral. That is, don’t leave a tangled mess of study notes on your desk after a long session, because when you come back to it in the morning you’ll lose at least some motivation in cleaning that mess up.

8. Use hard exercises

Pick a few hard exercises on your course. Make sure they’re likely to be relevant for your exam. Struggle with them.

When you’ve solved them, memorize some of the key insights that led you to solve the problem. That’s right: memorize them.

Why spend time on even more memorization? The reason is that math exams often reuse the same kinds of problems. So if you already to know how to solve them at a basic level, you’ll have a real advantage in the exam.

But even if those hard problems don’t turn up in the exam, they provide some of the best teaching you’ll ever get. By definition, they’re going to be weird in some way. And understanding weird things improves your mind.

More math study tips on www.exammastery.com


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