A Case for the Humanities

The humanities has so much to offer that science cannot.

by Tyler Malbreaux | 7/6/18 2:10am

Anyone studying a humanities subject has heard this at least once since declaring their major: that STEM majors (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) get paid more. Firms ranging from investment banks to technology giants need people who can analyze large chunks of data. In terms of career placement, future earnings, and, to an extent, prestige, a degree in the humanities seems to lose the argument over utility and applicability every time. But it does not have to be seen this way. In fact, the myth of STEM superiority was not always so.

Economists have long known that technology and innovation are precursors to economic growth. A classical education, that focused on bulwarks of Western canon, was the standard for much of the 19th century. The 20th century dawned a new era. The German-modeled research university, with an emphasis on tenured-professors who published their work, was being implemented at American colleges as early as the 1960s. This is the model that exists today, and research universities continue to top the college rankings charts.

The difference between then and now is that, in the research university, humanities and STEM subjects used to be able to coexist. The emphasis on STEM is recent. In fact, there are no known instances of “science, technology, engineering and mathematics” being used as an acronym until 2005, when the word was used in the name of newly founded STEM Congressional Caucus.

Since then, talk about STEM’s importance has been front-and-center in education policy discourse. Unfortunately, much of the rhetoric promoting STEM has amounted to a devaluing of the humanities by lawmakers. Sometimes it amounts to an all-out assault. As then-Senator Marco Rubio put it in a 2015 stump speech, “We need more welders and less philosophers.” Some universities have responded in kind. The most high-profile example is the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, which has proposed removing 13 humanities degrees and replacing them with studies that have “clear career pathways.”

All this talk about STEM obscures two realities. First, STEM subfields are not uniformly desirable in the job market. Computer science majors, for instance, are more likely to fare well in their job searches than those who study other sciences. Demand for computer science majors is expected to grow by 73 percent by 2024, compared to three percent growth in the physical and life sciences. But only 13 percent of life scientists and 17 percent of physical scientists work within their field of study after college, compared to the more than 50 percent of computer scientists who work in their respective field.

The other obfuscation is that humanities majors make as much money as their STEM counterparts in the long-run. This is partly because humanities majors are more likely to pursue advanced degrees, such as a Master’s degree, whereas STEM majors do not necessarily need one. However, this applies mostly to students who go to selective, small liberal arts schools. Students at these schools are more likely to major in the humanities and attend graduate school. Students at less selective state schools, on the other hand, are more likely to do pre-professional majors — business, nursing, education — and skip graduate school. Therefore, they do not always enjoy the benefits of higher earnings.

Thus, while STEM fields are not as great as contemporary rhetoric suggests, the humanities are not able to “beat” STEM in the job market. This is why the argument for the humanities is dead prima facie to lawmakers and college officials nationwide.

The only way the humanities will be seen favorably is by replacing job prospects with another metric that measures something more meaningful. Of course, there are the obvious ones that most have heard before: that the humanities teach one to craft an argument, closely analyze text and, as the trite expression goes, to “think critically.” These skills can be abstracted into the real world and used in a host of industries outside of STEM-centered ones. But there is one thing that’s missing, one thing so central to the humanities/STEM dichotomy that one would be remiss to not mention it. And that is the question of intangible value, void of dollar signs and surpluses. In other words, how can the humanities add value to people’s lives?

Humanities is about more than mere reading or writing. It’s about being in conversation with a philosopher, author or playwright. It means reading and re-reading, posing questions and offering up interpretations. These writers, the ones studied in school, wrote down their deepest thoughts after much introspection and deliberation, in a very intimate process of literally writing out their feelings. The humanities offers a way to understand those feelings.

It is hyperbolic to say that learning Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia can lead one to a meaningful life, or that studying James Baldwin can teach one everything there is to know about navigating sexual and racial identities. In order to accomplish that, today’s students must engage in the same process of reading, writing, re-reading and re-thinking as those before them. And that is a lifetime’s work that only the humanities can prepare students for.