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Sunday, September 24, 2023

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Consider the humanities major

Advice for taking the road less traveled.

There is nothing less vogue in today’s higher education stratosphere than the humanities major.

Enrollment is down across the nation. Things have gotten so bad in recent years that the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point briefly considered eliminating thirteen humanities majors, including philosophy and english.

We have grown up in an era of technological growth unparalleled in human history. In 1987, just 35 years ago, Microsoft revolutionized the computer industry by releasing Excel — a software program that allowed users to manage neat rows and columns and computerized personal finance. This year, they invested in a technology that scored 90% on a Wharton business school exam.

It feels impossible to predict where the next twenty years will go or what the economy could possibly look like in the future.

And that’s the case for a humanities major. On one hand, we have been told that our experience in the workforce will be radically different from 40 years at an IBM desk job, a 401k and retirement. On the other hand, we have become convinced that specialization is the key to success. If you want to do business, study business. If you want to be a journalist, study journalism. If you’re not quite sure, try out STEM and you’ll make a lot of money as an engineer or specialist.

The argument against the humanities major is that it is hard to get a high paying job directly after college, a major concern to students swamped with debt and uncertainty. But, as Amanda Ruggieri points out for the BBC, “Our assumptions about the market value of certain degrees — and the ‘worthlessness’ of others — might be off.”

Students with humanities degrees assimilate to the upper echelon of diverse fields — from management, to business, to science. So why the continuing stigma against the field?

In his March article, “The End of the English Major,” Nathan Heller recounts a conversation he had with a Harvard student about “whether there seemed to be a dominant vernacular” on campus. The student replied that there was one: “the language of statistics.”

Heller remarks that the student seemed to be correct: “Statistics [are] now everywhere, our language for exchanging knowledge.”

The quantitative methods of data, sample size and confidence intervals have made abstract and theoretical arguments irrelevant in the eyes of many professionals. More data, science and technology have become our leaders' prescription to the many ails society faces.

And, over time, the humanities have been caught in the middle. An art history major was reduced to a punchline by President Barack Obama as he pushed for more STEM education. The United Kingdom’s focus on science and math has led to a 20% drop in students taking A-level English classes.

But, if data is to rule the 21st century, it seems likely that the skills future and current society are most likely to value is the ability to derive meaning from that information, the ability to contextualize numbers and the ability to present them in a way that compels humans. These skills are the “soft skills” that every employer yearns for and the skills a humanities major prioritizes.

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It is important to remember this single-track method to higher education is a new one, and many of the greatest pioneers in science, technology and business have linked their success to the interdisciplinary knowledge a humanities degree offers.

Steve Jobs said the most important class he ever took in college had nothing to do with computers — it was a calligraphy course. Recalling the event in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, he cited the class as a major influence to the word processing programs that would define the early iterations of Macintosh. 

“I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great,” Jobs said. “It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.”

In a 1996 article for the Harvard Business Review, Bill Gates attributed a similar understanding of subtlety to Warren Buffett’s success. 

“Being good with numbers doesn’t necessarily correlate with being a good investor,” Gates writes. “Warren doesn’t outperform other investors because he computes odds better. That’s not it at all. Warren never makes an investment where the difference between doing it and not doing it relies on the second digit of computation. He doesn’t invest — take a swing of the bat — unless the opportunity appears unbelievably good.”

Again, these skills are soft skills — interpreting meaning and applying theories rather than just plugging values into preexisting formulas. But, in the 21st century, the decline of the humanities for the benefit of STEM has damaged the pursuit of holistic knowledge; the kind of knowledge that allows you to make the interdisciplinary connections necessary to becoming the next Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett.

Before considering your major, consider what you want your education to mean and what you are looking to get out of it. This is a hard question to answer, and it is one that will almost certainly change over your time on campus. But it is an important one to grapple with if you want to make the most of your four years and acquire the knowledge necessary to compete in the future American economy.

Above all else, remember there is no right track to success. What success looks like today or twenty years ago may look very different from what it looks like tomorrow. Learning for the sake of learning should be the goal of any education, and it is the promise of this university. 

Don’t ignore the seemingly benign influence of the humanities. Use the knowledge they provide as another tool in your ever-expanding toolbelt.

Graham Brown is an Opinion Editor and Editorial Board Member. He is a junior studying Political Science and English. Do you agree that humanities majors are an undervalued option? Send all comments to

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