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Studying the Humanities Always Will Be Important

For the better part of the last two decades, we have heard arguments from various quarters that studying liberal arts or the humanities in general was a waste of time or at the very least, an unwise path for college students to pursue.

To be honest, as a professor who is deeply engaged in the humanities as my scholarship transcends several disciplines, my intense bias and suspicion against such dismissive rhetoric abounded. Well, it turns out that my skepticism was well-founded.

In a recent article written by Scott Samuelson of the Wall Street Journal, he cites a study that was released in January by the Association of American Colleges and Universities that analyzed Census Bureau Data on the education and occupations of almost 3,000,000 American residents. The study found that between ages 55 and 60—“peak earning years”—men and women who majored in the humanities or Social Sciences earned on average at least $2,000 more than those who majored in professional or pre-professional fields.

The study further indicated that businesses and employers were aggressively seeking to employ graduates who possessed “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems.” It goes without saying these are the sorts of skills that anyone who pursues an education in the humanities often will receive. As those of us who teach in the humanities and social sciences can imagine, I was grinning like a Cheshire cat when I came across such good news. I cannot tell you how many conversations I have engaged in with people of all races who have decried as what they saw as the “irrelevance” of the humanities.

I have sparred with more than a few engineers, business people, accountants, chemists and individuals of similar professions at coffeehouses, conferences, symposiums and other venues. Some of these people have been friends, other total strangers. They have been so convinced in the supposed supremacy of medicine, business, technology and the hard sciences in general that they been totally blinded by the crucial impact that liberal arts has had on the larger society.

Many of these anti-humanities men and women have been quick to dismiss my arguments based on the fact that they have referred to previous studies (now discredited to some extent), stating that college graduates with non-technical degrees tend to have higher unemployment rates than those who are the recipients of such degrees.

I have attempted to make the case to such naysayers that, to minimize the value of the humanities, or any other area of academic inquiry for that matter, to one’s ability to earn an ample salary is to misunderstand the purpose of what such an education is about. A classic liberal arts education introduces students to art, languages, literature, history, philosophy and other related areas of academic inquiry. More importantly, such an education provides its recipients with the ability and vital ingredients necessary to think critically and holistically about a plethora of issues, including business, science and technology for that matter. Being exposed to a multitude of subjects is what the humanities is all about.

I cannot tell you how many students I have had in my almost my two decades of being a college professor who have responded on student evaluations of my courses with comments such as: “This should be a required course.” “I learned about all sides of the issue, not just the popular one.”  “This class has made me see things in a totally different perspective.” This class has made me consider switching majors,” etc. There is no doubt that countless other college professors have witnessed similar responses as well. Needless to say, such remarks are immensely gratifying for any academic. It means that you have touched and connected with certain students.

There are been a number of proponents of the liberal arts who have made the case for its importance. On its departmental website, Clayton State University lists the top 10reasons for people to study the humanities:

  • To practice the analytical thinking skills you need to be a successful student and employee.
  • To improve your skill at oral and written communication.
  • To see the interconnectedness of all areas of knowledge ― how it all fits together.
  • To develop a global perspective by studying cultures throughout the world.
  • To deepen your understanding and appreciation of other’s cultures and other’s points of view.
  • To support and strengthen your local arts community by learning to appreciate the importance of creativity.
  • To clarify your values by comparing and contrasting them to what others have thought.
  • To deepen your sources of wisdom by learning how others have dealt with failures, success, adversities, and triumphs.
  • To appreciate what is enduring and to be able to tell the difference between the meaningless and the meaningful.
  • To be inspired by some of the greatest minds and thoughts of the ages.

There are certainly many others.

By no means, should one dismiss the importance of science, technology, engineering and math and other STEM-related fields. Such disciplines are paramount and crucial to our society and will continue to be so. That being said, the fact is that one does not become successful or proficient in any endeavor or any profession (and that includes STEM fields) without a good, solid grounding in critical thinking skills that a liberal arts education provides. In short, the humanities are the cornerstone of any complete and well-rounded education.

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