Do your career a favor and study the humanities

This past week the Toronto Globe and Mail came out with yet another article documenting the tragic decline of Humanities programs in universities across the world—“As students move away from the humanities, universities adapt.” The article offers the same old thesis and cites the same statistics that students of the humanities have come to expect in writing on this topic: because there are fewer jobs in “humanities” disciplines (whatever these are), students with humanities degrees take longer to find jobs. On the off chance that they do get a job, they make less money on average than their peers in other disciplines. Consequently, students have fled the company of the Muses for STEM careers and business degrees, and universities have responded to that movement. Many schools have stopped replacing humanities professors when they retire, and some have eliminated humanities departments altogether. As the headline of the Globe article reports, universities have begun to “adapt” to the new reality that students to do not see how a degree in the humanities can lead them to a stable career path; for these students, the humanities are a “hobby,” not a profession.

To accommodate such students, universities are increasingly implementing “adaptations” that allow people to pursue studies in the humanities concurrently with another degree—mixing business and pleasure, so to speak. Now don’t get me wrong, I do not think these “adaptations” are all bad. As the holder of a double degree myself, I believe that students should be given the opportunity to pursue multiple areas of study (although this often comes at the expense of depth—a separate problem). However, I do believe that many of the opinions expressed by this article and by many of the people referenced in it are the result of a fundamental misapprehension, first, of what the humanities are and what the study of the humanities encompasses, and second, of what it means to pursue a career in the humanities versus what it means to pursue a career with a humanities degree.

First and foremost, the humanities are not the performing arts. These are two separate areas of study, which offer different skills and opportunities to those who study them. The Globe article begins with the illustrative example of Emma Thompson, who “thought she would study theater or music in university.” From its first lines, the piece constructs the age-old narrative of the adolescent who leaves behind childish dreams of a life on the stage for adult responsibilities. Fortunately, Emma was spared a life of rejection and poverty when she met her eleventh grade physics teacher, who “sparked her interest in science.” A reformed character, Emma has now been accepted at Ryerson to study engineering or science.

While the article cites Emma as an example of the movement of students away from the humanities, her story is part of an entirely different conversation. Music and theater are disciplines in the performing arts, and the performing arts are practiced, not studied. While performance art certainly teaches excellent values—practice, dedication, creativity, open-mindedness, focus—the practice of any one art is dedicated to the development of a single skill. Performers spend years training their bodies and minds to perform in a specific way on command. To be successful in the performing arts—that is, to get a consistent, paid work—requires a unique skillset and comes with entirely different stressors and opportunities than a career in the humanities.

Those who seek degrees in the humanities, however, seek to develop as broad a knowledge and education as possible—the exact opposite of a performance degree. Rather than offering the specific skills of a honed physical practice, the humanities offer training in all kinds of thinking and communicating in general over the entire course of human history. Owing to this broad definition—which more practically means the study of language, literature, philosophy, and history—the humanities has difficulty branding itself as a discipline. Universities, in their quest to convince students to shell out thousands of dollars for degrees which need to get them jobs, struggle to give students a list of skills and objectives that they can expect walk away with for the money, time, and effort they invested in a humanities degree. It certainly does not help that the numbers back STEM disciplines. Students with degrees in science and engineering can expect to get hired more quickly, and indeed to make more money than their peers in the humanities: “English, French and history majors earned approximately $20,000 to $30,000 less a year, on average, than those in engineering, math or computer science, according to Statistics Canada.”

That being said, a degree in the humanities has its perks. The article also points out that while students with humanities degrees may make less money, they enjoy greater career stability: “Over a decade, their earnings rose steadily, rather than being subjected to the boom and bust cycles experienced by their colleagues in engineering or computer science.” Furthermore, though students with humanities degrees may begin by making less money than those students with STEM degrees, their earnings rise at “similar rates.” The relative success of students with humanities degrees mystifies some researchers. Ross Finnie, the director of the Education Policy Researcher Initiative at the University of Ottawa, says that “the next thing is to figure out what exactly it is that allows humanities grads to do as well as they do in the labor market…We really don’t know very well what their skills are, the value of those skills in the labor  market, or the potential role of higher education in helping students develop those skills.”

However, the study of the humanities does not teach a specific set of skills; rather, the humanities teach processes: reception, interpretation, thinking, and communication. While these seem like broad, abstract abilities, they tend to make for people who are generally useful to have around, rather than people who perform specific tasks. Students in the humanities are constant communicators, expected to gather and understand information from a wide variety of disciplines, and then to relay that information to others through their own writing or speaking. They are trained to develop their communication skills over time, complicating their thought processes and increasing their tolerance for difficult, and often paradoxical, material. They are trained to synthesize large amounts of information, distill the relevant facts, and then contextualize that information in service of a persuasive argument. Students of the humanities are well-read, careful, and experienced thinkers and writers—qualities that one learns to value increasingly over the course of one’s life.

Perhaps the real reason why humanities students and their contributions to the work force are so hard to trace and quantify is that they are everywhere. These students offer high-octane versions of skills that are so basic, most people have ceased to consider their import. No one in the office can quite put their finger on why the new hire, who happens to have a Literature degree, is so effective—but it may be because she has been trained to communicate her ideas clearly through her writing, which makes her work easy to understand. That rising star in the PR department might have his Masters in Media Relations, but his undergraduate degree in Cultural Studies taught him how to read any socio-cultural situation or text.

When it comes to the hard truth of “careers in the humanities,” this article is correct—any student in the humanities will tell you that there are not many jobs that are strictly coded as “humanities” positions—i.e. professorships, arts administration, publishing, editing, etc. However, not every humanities student needs—or wants—a job in the humanities. The skills they learn from their humanities degrees make these students useful in any work environment. In fact, the real mistake this article makes is fundamentally misunderstanding the role of the humanities in society. The humanities are not a career choice; every human being lives the humanities—we live in language, and in metaphor, and in philosophy, whether we know it or not. The humanities is at heart, whatever its cosmetic trappings, the study of people and their relationships with the world. Some people choose to do other work, but the humanities are an inescapable part of life. Those students who choose to study the very processes that make them thinking beings are prepared for whatever work situation they find themselves in, the rest is just semantics.

– Katherine Horgan



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