“But You’re Going to be Unemployed!”
An English major’s defense of the humanities
Last week, my friend’s history professor had COVID-19 — and without class for a few days, she had much less work than usual. When she explained this to one of our other friends, they rolled their eyes at her. “Well, that’s just the humanities,” they said with a sigh.
In my experience, interactions like this one are not uncommon at Dartmouth. Usually, when I introduce myself and reveal my intended field of study — English, if you can believe it — people practically gasp. To be fair, I always say it with a sort of sarcastic note in my voice, like I’m anticipating a negative reaction. Sometimes, I’m the first to make an English-major joke: it’s a defense mechanism, which I guess shows just how insecure I am about the whole thing.
From what I’ve seen, Dartmouth’s academic culture tends to preferentially praise STEM fields, but this type of mentality surely isn’t unique to us. Studies over the years have shown that humanities majors like history, philosophy and English are on a steady decline at most universities. Students are less likely to pursue a degree that can’t offer a clear career path, which is, obviously, completely understandable. I would be lying if I said I don’t question whether I’m wasting my degree by studying English, one of the most notoriously job-insecure majors — and honestly, one of the reasons why humanities jokes hurt is because I am scared deep down that they might be true.
Despite what feels like a general cultural preference for degrees in the sciences, we’re all told that the humanities are valuable. But I often wonder if we really believe it. In my WRIT 5 course last term, we had a discussion on the last day of class about the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to learning and thinking. My classmates all acknowledged that literature, art and history were useful, but they couldn’t really agree on why.
Some made the general argument that each person should have a broad understanding of world history and culture in order to be a well-rounded, conscientious member of society. Others argued that the humanities encourage scientists and engineers to consider the real-world implications of their inventions and discoveries. How will X, Y or Z impact humanity as a whole? How can we combine the humanities and the sciences to make more compassionate decisions for the future of technology and innovation?
These are good points. Just last week, my first-year seminar professor, a renowned physicist and astronomer, explained the dangers of separating the humanities and the sciences. He gave an example that involved self-driving cars: In a situation where the car must either kill a group of pedestrians or the driver himself, which should it choose? My professor explained that without a sufficient understanding of ethical philosophy, the person responsible for coding the car would be tasked with a very difficult decision — one that could actually have devastating consequences. Coding a machine to interpret different scenarios and to essentially assess the value of human life relies on the most central goal of the humanities: the quest to understand and express the individual human experience.
I agreed with my professor’s point. Clearly, we need elements of the humanities in our scientific pursuits. However, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of value the humanities have on their own, outside of their relationship to science.
In order to answer this question, I thought back to the beginning of my first term at Dartmouth. On the second or third day of Orientation Week, my whole freshman floor sat in a classroom in the library, where a professor explained how to complete course selection. As the professor went over the general course requirements, she suddenly asked us why Dartmouth makes us choose a major at all. We were dumbfounded. A person here or there raised their hand and gave an answer, but she refuted them one by one.
She finally revealed the answer she was looking for: Majoring in a subject requires a deeper, more complex type of thinking than taking a bunch of different intro-level courses. In this way, students are able to learn not just the particular knowledge of their major but also the general — and perhaps more important — skill of high-level thinking. Her logic seemed obvious, and yet none of us had come up with it on our own.
When I consider the English classes I’ve taken at Dartmouth, I see more clearly what she means. Honestly, I’m not very good at a lot of the skills required by humanities classes — the most notable being the ability to participate in group discussions. I hate talking in front of a class, and I envy the older students in my literary history class who easily interact with the texts and each other.
Even if some of my STEM-focused peers don’t see the value in taking English classes, I do. They give me the chance to think deeply, develop arguments and search for meaning in unexpected places. I’m forced to communicate my thoughts and ideas with clarity and compassion — and in this regard, I am slowly unlocking the skills necessary to study literature and language in all their complexity. Even beyond that, I am preparing to engage with the world using the kind of awareness and appreciation that the humanities have a unique ability to foster.
I will probably continue to have doubts and reservations about my English major, but I’m trying to let myself enjoy the chance to study something I care about. Also, according to a recent article in The Atlantic, the humanities aren’t necessarily doomed in terms of job opportunities, even though we may think they are.
I wasn’t sure how to close this reflection adequately, so I consulted my dad for his advice. He stepped up to share his infinite wisdom as a computer science major — and after applauding me for my choice of article, he assured me that he too saw the value in my prospective English major. Later in the call, he directed me towards the key principles of a liberal arts education, called me a Renaissance woman and told me to look up the definition of “self-actualization.”
No matter what others may say about the humanities workload, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. While it’s true that I’m not discovering new planets or typing thousands of lines of code in my English courses, pondering, writing and being creative are valuable — and challenging — academic skills. And besides, the kind of masochistic validation that comes from staring at a problem set for 40 hours shouldn’t be the threshold of credibility for a major. Sometimes, simply loving what you study — humanities or not — is enough.