Amid the continual bombardment of demanding questions and social influences that circle around in a college student’s head on a regular basis, one is guaranteed its appearance during the first week of every class and the first conversation with every new friend: “What’s your major?”
These are the responses that have begun to dominate the undergraduate population. These are the majors that students and their parents know will set them up for professional, well-paying jobs in the future. As the population of the hard science majors consistently increases, the percentage of social science majors has noticeably declined. And so the question arises: In today’s society, are the humanities deemed obsolete?
One of the first problems is that many people don’t understand what value the humanities hold or why they are even slightly important in the first place. In a nutshell, “the humanities” as a field of study attempt to explain the human experience by developing the ability to analyze and criticize information as well as to construct one’s own beliefs and thoughts into a coherent piece. Although the hard sciences provide the skills necessary to succeed in the demanding fields of today’s society, the humanities provide the critical thinking and analytical skills that are necessary for any basic human interaction.
In the words of Joshua Pederson, a lecturer in humanities at Boston University, “Whether [students] major in business, engineering, biology or even English, the values the humanities promote — clear expression, deep engagement with difficult texts, the importance of function and aesthetics, the power of imagination — are valuable everywhere.” Professors within the humanities should not be concerned with how many of their students continue on to become English, communication, or psychology majors. They should instead focus on how they can provide students with these skills that serve as a benefit in so many aspects of a scholarly or professional life.
I know plenty of biology, math, and economics majors that can solve problems that I could never solve in my life, but too many of them are not able to write a professional email, catch a grammatical error on their own résumé, or speak as articulately and coherently as they should be able to in an educated conversation with an interviewer.
Please don’t think I am bashing any of the hard sciences. Rather, I commend them for the endless hours they spend in order to do well in their demanding classes, and for the skills they have developed by doing so. Math and science have an aspect of imagination to them, incorporating the creativity it takes to think outside the box into finding a new way to solve a challenging problem. But in a completely different way, the humanities capitalize on facilitating and fostering creativity. This creativity that can be taught and learned emerges in more than essays; it comes through in everything from simple conversations, to relationships, to problem solving.
I am also not saying that the undergraduate population should switch majors because there is more value in the humanities. Do something that you are passionate about—something that you will be able to love for the rest of your life.
As Pederson says, “Simply put, we don’t need a few more students to be English majors. We need every student to think more like a humanist.” We should not be measuring the importance of the humanities by dry-cut numbers and percentages of the currently enrolled student population, but by the basis that the humanities are founded on, which pervades each one of our daily lives.
Take an English or journalism class. Take one communication or psychology class during your undergraduate career, and even get a general education requirement out of the way while doing so. Keep an open mind, as it is one of the most valuable things you can have. No, it’s not that the humanities are dead. It’s that people don’t quite realize how the little things that come from them can go a long way.