The Case For Humanities

the school of athens

As it happens, I am a university student. When asked what I study is, I excitedly spout the words “philosophy” and “political science”. Instead of the inquiry of interest I hope for from my conversation partner, I almost without fail seem to hear the some variation of this question: “Philosophy (or political science), what can you do with that degree?” Admittedly, that response crawls through my veins and turns my extremities cold. I do not hold resentment for those that have asked me that question, for they mean no ill. However, I still feel a certain disconnect that compels me to flirt with the response “What does it matter to you?”

It doesn’t take a looking-glass to understand that the job market is desolate at the moment. Recent studies have shown mixed results, but state that the market is short about 9 million job opportunities. The unemployment rate for young high school graduates is about 30%. Unemployment plagues those with college degrees too, but only to a fraction of the extent as it does for those without a degree; the unemployment rate for young college graduates is at about 8.8% (1).

If I am feeling particularly masochistic, I will sometimes choke down my pride and read one of the opinion articles posted on various news portals (Yahoo!, MSN, etc.). Generally, the titles read something like “10 Worst College Majors for Finding a Job,” or “These Degrees Will Hold You Back in the Job Market.” We have all seen these editorials. The aim of such pieces are well-intentioned, warning about the financial dangers of education in any area of study minus a few booming fields. The editorials will start with a some introductory paragraphs to grasp the reader and then list off a vendetta-driven diatribe against humanities, fine arts, journalism, and a few other college majors that fail at a slightly higher rate to give graduates a high paying position out of right out of college. Then, to give you an optimistic shift in pacing, the piece will offer advice on which major to choose instead. Don’t study humanities, instead, try nursing –it only carries a 6.2% unemployment rate.

The mistake being made by these writers, who generally write for financial websites, is that the only use of university is to ensure a higher-paying job than that which is available for non-graduates. As I stated preciously, the intention of that point of view is pure, simply misplaced. While one goal of a college student should be the monetary return from the investment of education, the main purpose is, and should be, the tangible knowledge gained. This includes the material studied, the life experiences gained, and the research tactics developed to give the student not only an edge in critical thinking that could dwarf that of an American high school graduate, but the methods and practice needed to create a citizen that understands the importance of being informed by truly viable sources; this is opposed to those that read the headlines on cable news networks as if the titles are Shakespearean, or the gospel-truth.

I want a job that will support a family. I have a slightly naïve hope that in the future, my spouse will be free to pursue their own interests without the necessity to sacrifice individual values, hopes, and dreams for the sake of feeding our offspring; we all have this dream. I understand to achieve this vision, a number of variables have to fall in the correct way. I can make mistakes, but I have to make the right mistakes. No matter how unlikely the end, I still practice a flirtation with this dream.

For the best chance to turn the dream into reality, I could drop my humanities course work and focus of business, medicine, or law. Statistics show that those degrees are spouting out working-class Americans and climbers of the capitalist mountain by the truckload. The notion of easier-money is salivating, and yet, wholly unappetizing. To do so would be to turn my aspirations or a career that I cherish to martyrdom in search of cryptic life of finance. Though I would complete the goal of feeding my family, it would be at the expense of my happiness and, without a doubt, implode my family life after I experience years of inward-torture. I know my spouse would have the same feeling.

The truth as advertised is that I, along with my colleagues in humanities, the arts, and others don’t care about the money. We do what we do because we are compelled to. I could not change my love of wisdom and politics any more than a bullied teen could have the gay prayed out of him. To us, the weight of our wallet is of less worth the weight of our knowledge. The enjoyment does not come solely from the return, but also from the journey of learning—the process is also the payoff. It may sound cliché, and maybe a bit romantic, but the truth is that we are following an internal calling that cannot be silenced.

The thought that institutions of higher learning have the sole purpose of simply training employees is a relatively new idea. As long as knowledge and research methods have been traded, the aim has not been financial return (unless you are from the school of Sophists). Instead, institutions like Plato’s Academy, or Pythagoras’ colony of wisdom worshipers practiced learning and though not for financial gain, but for the pure love of wisdom.

So, the crosshair of the humanities major is set on education for the sake of education,rather than education for the sake of financial benefit. The concept may seem foreign to those that were ushered into college by well-to-do parents. “Johnny, you need to go to college to get a good job.” Still, the problem of finding a job is an open case.

One article explaining the value of “practical” college degrees reads as such:

Liberal arts and sciences. An assortment of humanities courses might round out your intellect, but it could also confuse employers who don’t understand what kind of job a liberal arts major is supposed to prepare you for” (2).

Did you know that by studying humanities, you are going to “confuse employers?” Your would-be bosses won’t know what to make of the course work or your knowledge of crazy things like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, or Roosevelt’s New Deal. You’d be better off following your liberal college professors, listening to them rabble-rouse around town like the students of Socrates.

The truth is that employers are looking for people that are well-rounded critical thinkers. You can obtain those abilities by majoring in business, or law, but you will surely gain that and more as a humanities student. The only draw of business majors is the lack of necessity for a few weeks of on the job training. In today’s face-paced world, there is no time to hold the presses for a month to train the incoming class. There is no room for humanities majors in the working class. Or, so they say.

The truth, however, seems to be stranger than fiction.

After I get over my momentary lapse in good-will, I respond to the question posed to me. “What can you do with a philosophy degree?” I refer to a recruitment sheet done by the University of Connecticut’s Philosophy department. In the guide, references are made to the fact that philosophy majors are “rank[ed] 16th out of 50 studied—above chemistry, marketing, information technology, and business management,” in mid-career median salary. The list also states some “actual careers of UCONN Philosophy majors” like judge, teacher, dentist, attorney, corporate president, cinema writer/producer, and many more. Philosophy majors, along with other humanities majors like History and English, rank above the sciences in admission to medical school. Likewise, admission to law school is no different. And graduate school –you guessed it, philosophy majors have “the highest average among all majors on both the Verbal and analytical writing sections of the GRE” (3).

So, if you are like me and are put on trial every time a family member, friend of a friend, or interviewer asks you “What are you going to do with your that degree,” you can use the same response I do: “I can do anything I want with my degree.”

Now, for some homework: Ask yourself, “Am I truly happy with my current career, or the career path I have chosen?” Do you think that the way you have lived your life promotes your best internal interests and callings?

I chose “The School of Athens” by Raphael for this post to express the significance of study in wisdom and humanities.

Twitter: @dustin_mcmahon

Works Cited:

(1) Shierholz, Heidi, Natalie Sabadish, and Nicholas Finio. “The Economic Policy Institute.”Economic Policy Institute. N.p., 10 Apr. 2013. Web. 12 Aug. 2013

(2) Newman, Rick. “The 10 Worst Majors for Finding a Good Job.” Yahoo! Finance. N.p., 18 June 2013. Web. 12 Aug. 2013.

(3) “”What Can I Do with PHILOSOPHY?”” University of Connecticut Philosophy Department. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2013.

14 thoughts on “The Case For Humanities

  1. It wasn’t that long ago that medical schools sought after students with humanities degrees. Many still do. Unthinking med school candidates have begun majoring in science thinking it will help them, but outside of a few core courses, Medical schools want to teach you everything you need to know to become a doctor. So, the next time someone asks you “what kind of job . . . ?” tell them one thing might be to be a doctor (or a policeman, or a military officer, or any of the myriad life paths for which a humanities degree is great “training”).

    How a college degree became job training, I’ll never know. I think it had to do with busineses deciding they needed to hire employees with degrees, for status reasons.

    • You were the first on the comment board to bring up the point that college has become a place for businesses to get pre-trained workers. I agree that it is a problem.

      Obviously, the solution to the problems humanities majors experience is simple: more education for more people. It is a taboo to be a freethinker, and it is known that the quickest way to free thought is through the study of previous professional thinkers. I was actually just told the other day that I “need to get a real job” and stop wasting my time with thought. Of course, it does not phase me, for many people that say things like that to me are ignorant to the meaning of the term ‘Philosophy’. I don’t have a path to a complete solution, yet, but we can look optimistically at the future; that seems to be the passive all-good approach.

  2. Pish posh on the studies – it takes all kinds to make a world, a community. Stick to your guns, you will find your way, be valuable and earn a living. We need people who can think, always will.

  3. Educations goes in cycles. Learning for the joy of learning. Learning because you have the disposable wealth to afford to learn. Learning to develop a skill or trade beyond basic training. Colleges have gotten themselves into a hole because teaching is expensive. Alumni, grant agencies, and government funding want results, such as degrees achieved and employment rates. State licensure laws and national accreditation organizations require standarized programming for certain professions. We have forgotten what learning is.

  4. Great post and I admire your approach. Mainstream thought on this issue varies with the economy. A few years ago the mantra was “do what you love, the money will follow.” Today that’s harder to do but I still think it’s true. And there are a lot of business majors and bankers looking for jobs, too. The best quote I ever heard on the topic was “studying the arts teaches you to live without the job you can’t get.”

    Good luck!

    • I love the quote you mentioned! That is the truth. It is unfortunate that educated people are having such a hard time (and non-educated people, too). Thank you for the insight!

  5. Nice post. !

    “preciously” – may be you meant previously?

    “masochistic” – are you sure, this is the word you meant?

    “Only use of university is to ensure a higher-paying job than that which is available for non-graduates.” – How wrong is this. Totally with you, that this has now become the general opinion.

    “To do so would be to turn my aspirations or a career that I cherish to martyrdom in search of cryptic life of finance” – you really shouldn’t!

    “any more than a bullied teen could have the gay prayed out of him.” – funny! 🙂

  6. Dustin! Way too long between posts, dude…

    Another great one, though.

    I am another of those “liberal arts” majors – dual major in PoliSci and International Relations. I got lost on the path to law school and never made it. Not sure if that was good or bad…

    I am with you 100% (but I would be wouldn’t I?) on the misplaced value of education in the modern world. We need thinkers and learners, not just doers. Even the best scientists could do with some liberal arts education or how will they understand ethics, which is a foundation stone for science.

    Don’t get me wrong, there will always be a place for solid engineers, mathematicians and other “hard science” folks, but the vast majority of the population would be better served learning how to think critically and to examine bias.

    Originally, most trades had their own apprenticeship programs which were certified by unions and guilds. To subvert unions, two year (junior colleges) began certifying these skills. JC’s were also meant to give non-university candidates a foothold into higher-education – a means of documenting trade knowledge without having to be in a union or in areas where unions did not exist.

    With the on-going education-inflation of the last 60 years and combined with the efforts of businesses to abandon staff when they (the businesses) relocate, we’ve seen an explosion in the “personalization” of education debt for individuals. In other words, in the past, you lived like a slave while apprenticing to a master (pre to middle-ages). Later, you did the same for a guild (middle ages to industrial age). Then (only really in the 20th century), companies would train (or subsidize education for) their staff. What they (the companies) found was that if they trained and then didn’t pay more, the staff would leave for a competitor who would pay more. The only solution is to employ pre-trained staff. So, self-funding personal education to get an entry level job becomes the norm.

    Not only does this shift the cost of training from the company to the employee (reducing business costs), it also creates a natural hurdle for businesses to use to identify the more highly motivated staff and the more trainable staff.

    Businesses offer no loyalty to staff and staff offer none back. And so the race to 3rd world status proceeds…

    Anyway, keep the faith.

    • Hey!

      I hadn’t been posting because I had been very busy for most of the summer with course work and then took a couple weeks off to unwind. Thank you for reading!

      I don’t mean to degrade the necessity for hard science students, for I respect those fields very much. I have many ideas on the reformation of higher education which would help to integrate a more well-rounded course schedule.

      Furthermore, it is unfortunate that businesses feel the necessity to cut costs by cutting training. College is not a place to train for a job. We know that, but it is being forgotten swiftly. However, I think that as long as there are people like us who make the problematic issues known, a hope will remain.

      Thank you for the comment. I’ll do my best to continue writing with some frequency!


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