Editorial: Humanities should not be treated as impractical

By The Beacon | November 7, 2013 2:42am

Humanities majors at UP have heard all the questions and quips.

History, huh? What are you gonna do with that?

You’re a philosophy major? So are you headed to law school after this?

I don’t always talk to English majors, but when I do, I ask for a caramel frappuccino.

On its face, UP appears to be a humanities-friendly school. The Office of Admissions touts the liberal arts-rich core curriculum, citing the Holy Cross belief in the education of the mind, heart and hands.

But humanities departments have to constantly advocate for themselves by trying to convince students that humanities majors can actually get jobs after graduation. At an open house called “Why Philosophy?” on Oct. 8, philosophy professors worked to answer questions like What can one do with a philosophy major in the real world? to ease the troubled minds of students considering a philosophy major.

English and history professors keep reminding their students that the research and critical thinking skills they learn in their studies will, in fact, be desirable to future employers.

As it turns out, they’re right, according to a study published by Oxford University professors this summer based on data from previous generations of graduates. The study found that it is true that humanities majors don’t tend to get rich right out of college, but they do end up making plenty of money later on in their careers.

Still, the perception of the lack of monetary value in studying the humanities persists. Parents still worry about shelling out tens of thousands of dollars per year for their child to get a political science degree.  Big contributions from wealthy benefactors give some students the impression that there’s more value in the Donald P. Shiley School of Engineering and the Pamplin School of Business Administration than in the nameless College of Arts and Sciences.

Across the nation, the status and financial support of humanities in higher education is waning at universities. The focus has shifted to favor science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) departments, whose graduates will pick up a hefty salary right out of college.

But all discussion of monetary value in regards to a liberal arts education reveals a misunderstanding of what a humanities degree is for. Administrators, faculty and students need to stop thinking that a college degree is a means to a well-salaried career. A degree - especially a degree in the humanities - is a symbol of distinction, a sign that a student has learned to think, speak, question, challenge and discern.

For people who study the humanities, it does not matter what value is placed on their education and work because they recognize that education is valuable in itself, regardless of a paycheck or pricetag.

None of this is to say that STEM education is unimportant. People who study sciences are indispensable in an ever digitizing world, and the value of scientific research at universities should not be understated.

But liberal arts is the foundation of our university and of all western institutions of higher education, and it should not be dismissed as frivolous simply because its value is not immediately apparent.

The next time someone asks about the purpose of a history degree, maybe they’ll hear the proper answer: What am I going to do with my history degree? Well, I’ll learn and know and think.