In Defense of a Humanities Major

8 Apr
English major

English major

STEM careers seem to be all the rage. When we read about China’s ascendance on the world stage and America’s fall as a world power, we often read about our lack of college graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  It is true that many of the cerebral muscle powering innovation in Silicon Valley comes from abroad, and I have been told by friends in these fields that there is indeed a lack of preparation by American college grads to work in these fields. But does this have to come at the expense of preparing young people in the humanities, arts, and social sciences? To some, the answer is yes.

After reading Michelle Singletary’s recent Washington Post column, “Not all college majors are created equal”, I had to respond. This recession has been hard on everyone, and I have had discussions with friends about this very topic: namely, do we regret majoring in something like history, geography, Spanish, visual art? Do we even think college is necessary in this day and age when so much is being replaced by apps and outsourcing? It is a precarious time in which to be a college graduate, when a degree does not lead instantly to a job and 401K. A major in engineering may be a sure bet in this climate- it instantly leads to a high-paying job, whereas a degree in psychology or sociology may not. But I think it is worth looking at what a college education is for when looking at the value of one major against another.

As a literature major, I know that I will rarely need to cite my senior thesis on how two Caribbean poets reconciled politics in their work, while a lab biologist will have to use her knowledge of chemistry every day in the lab. But in addition to learning certain facts and figures within our chosen field of study, we should walk away from college, regardless of major, armed with the knowledge of how to think and solve a problem. Biology majors apply the scientific method to the study of the natural world. Hypothesis, experiment, recalibrate, repeat. Psychology majors use the methods of the social sciences to set up studies of human behavior, constantly refining their findings in light of new evidence. And us literature majors? Ideally, we learn to read critically and write clearly. As a professor of mine from graduate school stated simply, “Clear writing comes from clear thinking” (naturally he never read some of the literary theorists I read in college). And as a family friend who is a successful defense lawyer said recently, the best major for a young person who wants to pursue a career in law? English.

Learning a discipline that will teach you to think, and think critically, is essential to a career in the professions- those careers pursued by young people who go to college in the first place to advance their chances of entering the middle class. Are STEM majors the only way to go? I certainly hope not. We need these students, yes, to develop the technologies of the future. But we need business executives to fund them, politicians to craft policies that support them, journalists to analyze them, and more. Steve Jobs spearheaded the biggest technological advances in recent memory, and yet it can be argued that his emphasis on design helped to make Apple what it is today. The look and feel of Apple was influenced by Jobs’ admiration of calligraphy, based on a class he took at Reed College.

I think that colleges need to do a much better job at preparing students for life after college. I know that my alma mater had a dismal career center when I was a graduating senior: I recall being disheartened by seeing a job posting for a manager at a retail store at the local mall. All this work to graduate, I thought, and they want us to go work at the mall? Nevertheless, career services at my university must have improved over the intervening years, because I recently participated in an alumni event to help students prepare for post-college life. I regret that I only worked one summer during college. I would advise students to work, volunteer or travel EACH summer during college, as well as seek out internships to know if a given career is a good fit.  But I would advise a student inclined toward majoring in the humanities to pursue what they love both during and after college. It will truly pay off.

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