Why Study Humanities?

Prospective and current students interested in the humanities, as well as their parents, often have many questions about the value of a Humanities degree. Here is a guide for thinking about a degree in a humanistic discipline.

What are the Humanities?

Roughly, professors are either “scientists” or “humanists.” Both are necessary to civilized society, and exposure to both the humanities and sciences is essential to a well-rounded education. But what makes a discipline part of the “humanities” as opposed to part of the “sciences”?

First, you should note that that there are all sorts of important questions to ask. It’s important to ask about what the stuff around us is made up of. But it’s also important to ask about what morality is, or what makes some art beautiful and important. Not all these questions can be answered the same way. Generally, the more a question requires expert judgment, the more likely it is to be considered “humanistic” rather than “scientific.” For instance, a chemist can teach you to devise experiments that remove judgment from the question of whether battery acid is more acidic than lemon juice. On the other hand, there is no experiment you can conduct to test the quality of a sculpture, or the morality of some proposed law, or the impact of some poem. There are answers to these questions, but you need good judgment to know them, and humanists are the people who can help you develop that judgment.

Education isn't just about knowing; it’s also about doing. Your science professors will help you learn how to do science and report on your science, and they will help you learn the basic skills you might use in a medical or technology career. Your humanities professors will help you learn how to do some important things, too. Your humanist professors will teach you how to communicate your thoughts in papers and presentations and other languages. They will teach you how to express yourself through poetry, fiction, painting, music, sculpture, and dramatic arts. They will not only expose you to the treasures our culture has to offer, they will teach you how to add to those riches.

Why Study Humanistic Subjects?

Humanistic studies enrich the soul and make you a cultured individual. A humanistic education will help you understand, appreciate, and produce art, music, theater, and literature. Humanities disciplines focus on understanding beauty and the good, and give students the opportunity to practice making good and beautiful things themselves.

Some people think a humanistic education isn’t “practical.” To see why this is false, consider a couple points.

First, ask yourself what you seek, not for some further goal, but for its own sake. That is, what do you do for the pure pleasure of it? For the meaningfulness of it? In many if not most cases, those things and activities you seek and do for their own sake are just the sort of thing humanists focus on. If you understand why it’s practical to care about understanding, evaluating, and appreciating the ultimate goals for everything you do, then you understand the value of a humanistic education.

Second, it’s more practical to be someone who shapes, as opposed to merely consumes, our culture. Those who shape our culture are politicians, public intellectuals, marketers, policy-makers, activists, professors, lawyers and judges. Some of these people do shape their culture because they want power or money. Some shape their culture because they want to make it better. No matter what their motives, however, their power comes from their ability to think, argue about, and present ideas. Humanistic skills become increasingly important as you ascend this power hierarchy.

Third, it’s practical to contribute something to the world. Scientists surely contribute a great deal to the world, and we should value their work much more than we currently do. But it is nonetheless true that if any particular scientist did not exist, his or her contributions would eventually be made by another scientist. This is not true of art: if Shakespeare didn’t exist, his particular contributions wouldn’t have been made by another playwright or poet. There’s a particular beauty only you can add to the world. Humanists can help draw that out of you.

Can I get a job with a Humanities degree?

Humanists at Morris are deeply concerned about preparing students for good lives and good livings. When it comes to making money, two questions prospective students should ask are, 1) “What are the chances I’ll find a job with this degree?” and 2) “What sort of income is typical for people with this degree?”.

What about earnings after you’ve gotten a job? For that information, we suggest you start at the Wall Street Journal’s “Salary Increase by Major”–there you can see average starting and mid-career salaries by degree. (Note that this chart represents salaries only of those who did not seek further education, which is something that will help your career prospects in most cases, no matter what your major.)

Although there are wide disparities between various degrees, even in the Humanities, it is fair to say that degrees in the Humanities and Social Sciences are not as marketable as degrees in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) or certain degrees in Business and Management.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news.

First, employers report a desperate need for employees who can communicate fluently, intelligently, and persuasively. Employees who can organize their thoughts and synthesize scattered information into a coherent story. Employees who are “well–rounded” and have “soft” skills, such as an ability to converse with a number of clients on a variety of topics, or a general skill at evaluating evidence. If the GRE scores (a standardized test for students applying to graduate school) is any measure, then it seems as if Humanities disciplines are good at helping students become better writers and verbal reasoners. These skills, along with real–world experience (such as internships), will make you highly marketable.

Second, prospective students should keep in mind that Morris is designed to expose students to many fields–this is part of what it means to be a “liberal arts” university. It is common for students to double– or triple–major here. Students benefit by bringing multiple disciplinary perspectives to topic (imagine what exciting things happen when a Spanish and Economics double–major turns her attention to immigration, for example). But the advantages of double–majoring will be all the more significant when trying to persuade an employer that you would be a well–rounded, flexible, and capable employee. So students encouraged to consider developing multiple strengths—in the humanities and perhaps a non–humanistic discipline—while here.

In sum, a humanistic education is something that will enrich your private life. It will also enrich you financially, especially if you work hard, build competency in other fields, and seek out real–world experience while in college.