The Staying Power of the Humanities
February 20, 2019
February 20, 2019
In today’s world, there is a major emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors; these are professions deemed steady, practical, and the highest paying. If you even mention that you plan to major in the humanities (classics, communication studies, English, history, modern languages and literatures, philosophy, and religion), you are likely to be questioned by someone at one point or another: “Do you want a job?” or “How are you going to make a living?”
However, the skills that you obtain while acquiring a degree in the humanities might not be as impractical as everyone says. In fact, nowadays, those skills work hand-in-hand with STEM competencies and might actually lead to you standing out in a crowded job market. Take, for example, a few of the most well-known CEOs in the world. A 2015 Time magazine list included names such as Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO, who majored in communications; Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard CEO, who majored in medieval history and philosophy; and Susan Wojcicki, YouTube CEO, who majored in history and literature. Each of these individuals shattered the narrative that “a degree in the humanities is worthless.”
The humanities explained
So what exactly are “the humanities”? The field features a wide variety of disciplines; however, each relates back to human culture and experiences. The humanities help students develop an understanding of the world around them through reading and analyzing histories, literatures, languages, ideas, and values. Also, they require students to immerse themselves in today’s issues while trying to understand and effectively communicate their own opinions.
Humanities classes set up a foundation to better understand different forms of literature and film: for instance, students can identify inaccuracies or problematic representations in popular shows such as Netflix’s The Crown or HBO’s Game of Thrones. They also encourage students to explore different perspectives, improve their creative and critical thinking, and develop strong communication skills, which, in any profession, assist in identifying and analyzing potential obstacles and clearly articulating solutions. Finally, humanities courses teach students to use a variety of methods, including everything from ethically conducting research to creating visually appealing designs, which can apply to careers in think tanks, research institutes, museums, politics, and businesses. All in all, the humanities allow individuals to be well-rounded and expand their skills and expertise in a number of different areas.
Applying humanities skills to technology and today’s job market
With advances in technology—for example, with the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation—a greater number of jobs are being performed by faster and more efficient machines. This trend is not going to go away; in fact, it’s only going to continue to grow. Yet there are jobs and professions that machines can’t touch or replicate. This is where the skills students learn in their humanities courses come in and can actually help students stand out.
There are jobs and professions that machines can’t touch or replicate. This is where the skills students learn in their humanities courses come in and can actually help students stand out.
In the digital world, the humanities often get overlooked at every education level— whether it be in elementary school, middle school, high school, or college. There should be a greater emphasis on the humanities at every level because those fields are intertwined with technology specifically and STEM as a whole. After all, technology experts, scientists, and mathematicians face ethical dilemmas, racial biases, and gender prejudices daily. For example, a study performed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found gender and racial biases in a commercial AI system. In three major technology companies’ facial-recognition software, researchers looked at error rates and found that for light-skinned men, the error rate was never worse than 0.8%. However, for darker-skinned women, the error rate was more than 20% in one case and more than 34% in the other two. With a background in humanities, researchers could have potentially identified the discrepancies in the software and the statistics ahead of time.
Ethical dilemmas such as this occur all the time throughout various industries, from software development and government to healthcare and marketing. So there is a need for people who can think critically about different cultures and human experiences, who can critically analyze different forms of media, and who can explore different perspectives with different techniques. According to Dr. Erika Berroth, an associate professor of German at Southwestern University, students who major in the humanities actually benefit in whatever field they choose to go into: “Whatever profession one chooses to pursue, there will be a lot of attention on language and culture because there are always people from different backgrounds working together,” she says. “So people need to figure out how to work together and how to integrate cultural differences.”
Linking the humanities to STEM
Fundamentally, the humanities are about understanding the world around us—which is a crucial component of any STEM field. Take, for example, Dr. Jacob Schrum ’06, who majored in German, mathematics, and computer science at Southwestern University and is now an assistant professor of computer science at his undergraduate alma mater. Pairing computer science and mathematics with German may sound unusual; however, Schrum has made valuable connections between the two in his career.
As a part of his duties as a professor and scholar, Schrum is required to travel to international conferences and seminars every year to conduct research. One of his main seminars happens to take place in Germany, and his background in German helps to network with other researchers there. Schrum says, “It’s helpful to be able to converse and social-network with people at the conference…Even though almost everyone there speaks English, they’re oftentimes shocked when I start speaking German to them.” German and computer science have strong influences in Europe, so by knowing the German language and culture, Schrum is able to make stronger relationships with other researchers.
Anna Krolikowski ’20 is a current student at Southwestern with another “unusual” pairing of majors. She is majoring in computer science and English because “they both play off each other.” She says that majoring in a STEM and a humanities field opens up a wide range of options, and it allows her to gain valuable skills from both fields. From her English classes, she learns how to be a “critical thinker,” and, in computer science, she “learns how to problem-solve.” Krolikowski aspires to work in publishing one day. “All industries are moving towards technology, and STEM fields are moving towards greater automation,” says Krolikowski. “In the future, creativity and critical thinking are going to be needed in all industries, and it is likely programming will be fully automated.” With a degree in computer science and English, she plans to have a more diversified portfolio, which allows her to expand her opportunities after graduation.
“Selling” someone on the humanities
If the humanities are so valuable, why is it so hard to “sell” someone on it compared with STEM? It may be because everyone uses skills learned in the humanities every day in school or their profession—without even realizing it. Dr. Jessica Hower, an assistant professor of history at Southwestern, believes a humanities education is similar to oxygen: “In a sense, it is like something both hard to catch—hard to grasp onto with your hands or summarize quickly and easily—but also indispensable and valuable…There is nothing that students won’t be able to think about, research, read about, comprehend, talk about, or write about better as a result of a humanities class.”
“In a sense, [humanities] is like something both hard to catch—hard to grasp onto with your hands or summarize quickly and easily—but also indispensable and valuable…There is nothing that students won’t be able to think about, research, read about, comprehend, talk about, or write about better as a result of a humanities class.”
If this is the case, why doesn’t every student major or minor in a humanities discipline or at least take a variety of humanities classes? The reason for this, according to Hower, is that the humanities “might simply be bad at self-promotion.” She comments, “part of the reason might be the challenge of expressing something so pervasive, so deeply felt, so inherent.” Hower had this realization in London, England, where she co-led a program that encouraged her to use the English capital and the greater U.K. as a “living classroom.” While there, Hower taught history courses; however, these classes also integrated aspects from religion, feminist studies, and English. Simply put, they were humanities courses, yet as she and her students made their way around London, she saw “firsthand how the critical perspectives, methods, skills, and insights gleaned from our work in the humanities in the classroom bled into our travels. Students understood more about what they saw and could express what they understood in fuller ways. It is adaptable, pervasive, and applicable.” Therein lies the irony or paradox of a humanities education: it develops students’ communication skills, but a justification of the humanities remains difficult to explain because the humanities are so useful in every aspect of someone’s personal and professional life.
Creating a narrative
Whether employers realize it or not, they seek candidates who are able to think creatively, articulate ideas clearly, research different topics thoroughly, write coherently, and communicate and engage with others effectively. By and large, this is what the humanities teach; they are widely applicable in the current job market. According to Hower, personal success depends on “the degree you earn, the school you do it at, and, most of all, how you present yourself—the narrative that you construct about why you are the perfect fit for a given job, graduate school, or other opportunities.” However, this narrative goes beyond your major, cover letter, and résumé and can affect one’s actual performance. “A humanities major will help you compose that narrative: to make the case for your worth and value, to make it convincing, and to make your work in that position amazing once you obtain it,” Hower says.
How the future looks
According to a study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2017, the average person today changes jobs an average of 12 times during their career. Also, in January 2018, they reported the median employee tenure was 4.3 years for men and four years for women. Workers today are changing jobs, employers, and even careers more often than in previous generations. Therefore, according to Berroth, “it is imperative that students and workers have the flexibility of mind, are creative, and develop strong critical and analytical skills to reinvent themselves in different professional settings today and in the future.” The humanities set the foundation for you to develop and cultivate the skills you need not only out in college but throughout your entire professional career.