are the humanities still relevant?

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There are two questions no college freshman wants to answer...

…”are you dating anyone?”, and “what major are you going to choose?”. The latter is a coded way of asking terrified teenagers what they want to do for the rest of their lives. The answer for many of us is: how should we know? How does one weigh the merits of one course of study over another?

Sebastian Gonzalez Arboleda, a friend of mine and a freshman at Columbia University, recently asked me these questions over lunch. More specifically, he asked for help weighing the merits of a Humanities education against that of a STEM education. In trying to help him figure out a major to placate his prying mother, our efforts yielded the following conversation:

Sebastian: Having graduated from Pepperdine University as an English Major and now about to finish your graduate studies in Product and User Experience Design at the School of Visual Arts, I've been meaning to ask: why did you pursue a degree in English in the first place? What about the Humanities seemed so appealing to you?

André: Studying English was never about “The Humanities”. To be honest, I didn’t hear that term until college and I haven’t heard it since.

I studied English because I loved to read and write. I’m fascinated with big ideas and beautiful stories; I love the challenge of creating and sharing them with other people. It’s simultaneously the most difficult and most fulfilling thing I know how to do.

S: Did the salary averages for graduated English majors influence your decision to pursue your degree at Pepperdine, or was your decision strictly based on your interests and passion?

A: I suspect the question you’re really asking is: to what degree did the low pay associated with English degrees affect my decision to become an English major?

S: Yes. Thank you.

A: My decision was based strictly on my interests and passion. Choosing a major was a non-issue for me. I’ve always been a writer, so of course I would study writing.

But there’s more to it than that. For English majors specifically, the two stereotypical careers we are said to pursue are teaching or journalism. I never planned to do either, so the wage issue wasn’t of much concern to me.

To be honest, I didn’t think about a career until after I graduated college. As a kid, my gaze was always fixed on university. As far as I was concerned there was nothing beyond it. I just knew I wanted to get there and whatever came after was the problem for an older me.

S: Do you think the Humanities are a popular career route for students that are undecided or undeclared?

A: You’re literally asking a Humanities major if majoring in the Humanities is a good idea. Obviously I’m going to say yes. But here’s why:

The social sciences train you how to be a critical thinker in a world increasingly fraught with complex ideas. They teach you skills around how to understand, analyze, form, and communicate ideas–regardless of your career field. 

The social sciences teach you the greatest advantage you could ever hope to gain from a good education: agency over your own life. Skills like criticizing the validity and efficacy of ideas, expressing yourself precisely and succinctly, and engaging in directed discourse with other people allow you to claim agency over your life that a fake news article, government, loud-mouth, or false advertisement might otherwise take from you.

Something I’ve told people before is: a good education allows you to smell other people’s bullshit from a long way off.

How do the humanities compare to STEM subjects in today’s economy?

How do the humanities compare to STEM subjects in today’s economy?

S: So do you think the Humanities play an integral role in society?

A: Of course they do. The Humanities are the foundation of our social world. Culture, history, government–indeed most of the social constructs the industrialized world requires to operate wouldn't exist without knowledge and use of the Humanities.

S: Do you think the Sciences are more influential to world development and the improvement of daily life than the Humanities are? Are both essential for progress?

A: You're asking me leading questions, but I understand where you’re going. I’ll say this:

The Sciences, particularly, STEM subjects, are becoming the new drivers of our post-industiral economy. For example, STEM subjects are the bedrock of the tech industry, and tech companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon have now overtaken “industrial-based” companies like Wal-Mart and General Motors in terms of market cap and annual revenue. For these reasons, I think many might argue that STEM subjects are more valuable because they’re the ones currently driving the most economic growth. 

But this doesn’t make them more important.

I’m currently an MFA candidate in a STEM-related field. I also, as you know, have a degree in the Humanities. As an individual with both types of education, I can say that my work in STEM is better because I have training as a writer. I'll give you an example: I was recently hired by an automotive company to help work on a project around driverless ridesharing. They had done extensive qualitative and quantitative research, but found themselves with a mountain of data that they were struggling to craft into a clear, compelling, and ultimately useful study. My training in STEM allowed me to make sense of the data sets, but my training in the Humanities allowed me to be critical of the data I was seeing. Learning how to judge the validity of an argument meant I knew how to validate the efficacy of the evidence they had gathered and how it was relevant. Being taught how to construct a narrative, frame a thesis, and highlight key ideas in an essay allowed me to do the same in a deck.

The Humanities are universal skillsets that allow one to hone ideas, communicate effectively, and analyze rationally. Any person in any field would benefit from a strong foundation in these things. It would be shortsighted to assume that STEM fields are more important because they drive more economic growth.

S: What do you hope to achieve once you finish your studies? Are your goals the same as they were when you were about to finish your undergraduate degree?

A: My first two goals after graduation were to get sleep then get a job, so in that respect, they're exactly the same.

Beyond that, though, I want to have a career and lifestyle that will make me happy. By that I mean: I want to do work that improves the lives of everybody and not just myself. I want to have a career that pushes me to become a better practitioner and a better person. Finally, I want to have a life that isn’t built around my occupation, but rather around the people and things that bring me fulfillment.

What I struggle with is: I don’t think a person necessarily needs all this education to be fulfilled. I think about what fills me up: working on hard problems, mentoring kids, trying new things–and I don’t know if all the student loan debt I’ve accrued has necessarily made them easier to pursue. With my monumental grad school debt looming, I’m now wondering if the career I’ll have will be worth the sacrifice it took to get it.

S: You’ve worked as a Copywriter and Editorialist at different points in your life. From your time in the working world, do you think developing a good writing ability should be essential for all career paths and occupations?

A: No.

S: Well ok then. Thanks for the elaborate answer.

A: I’d love to sit on my high Humanities horse and preach about how all the world’s professionals need to also be good writers, but it’s not the case.

Medicine saves and improves the lives of arguably every single person on earth–but that doesn’t mean everyone should be a doctor. 

We live in a global community of diverse, interdependent, vital skillsets. Writing is part of that community, and I would argue it is no less vital than Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics. 

We need diversity in skillsets just like we need diversity in people in order to have a thriving economy and a thriving world. That might mean some people won't be so skilled in certain areas, but it might allow them to be more skilled in others. When the day comes that I can't solve a problem myself, which always seems to be tomorrow, I'll be glad someone out there chose to be good at something I'm not.

(edited for clarity)