The humanities still matter

Jose Gonzalez-Campon/The Cougar

The humanities are dying. While the “liberal arts major working at a coffee shop” is something of a stereotype, the facts seem to show that it’s not far from the truth. 

In 2020, the number of humanities majors dropped for the eight consecutive year. While around 20% of American students in the 1960s were enrolled in humanities degrees, that number sits closer to 5% today.

Between student loans and a rapidly increasing shortage of relevant jobs, it’s not hard to see why many students seem to prefer “safe” majors in STEM fields or other areas. If you can make more money and make a difference in a different field, why should anyone study humanities?

To somewhat oversimplify things, science and similar fields can answer the “what” and the “how” but the humanities aim to answer the “why.” Philosophy, art and literature challenge students to wrestle with complex questions about what it means to be human. 

While it can be easy to dismiss these ideas as interesting but impractical, the more “practical” fields could not exist without them. There is no scientific definition for justice that a prosecutor can lean on, nor innocence for a public defender to consult.

In other words, engineering provides the tools needed to build a bomb and the humanities push us to consider the destruction it could cause. Even Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, left his fortune not to science but to peacekeeping efforts.

But even if the humanities provide ethical guidance, some would argue it’s the lack of practical skills that leave so many graduates unemployed. In fact, a significant percentage of humanities majors say their degree has no relation to their job at all.

You’re not exactly learning rocket science in a BA program, but humanities courses do hold practical value. The ability to creatively analyze problems, think rationally and communicate across barriers are all important skills, no matter the job.

Some colleges have even created specialized programs in applied humanities that help students gain marketable skills. But even if they weren’t profitable, the world needs the humanities now more than ever.

When Robert Oppenheimer, one of the leading scientists on the Manhattan project, witnessed the atomic bomb for the first time, he didn’t lean on his background as a scientist. As he witnessed unimaginable destruction, he allegedly quoted an old Hindu text.

“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Between the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the advent of AI and the rise of social media use, humanity has a lot of hard questions to answer. Those questions aren’t going to be found in the back of engineering textbooks, so maybe it’s time to get back to the classics.

Malachi Spence Key is a journalism senior who can be reached at
[email protected]

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