The humanities have indispensable value
Views 9 | Time to read: 3 minutes | Uploaded: 10 - 17 - 2019 | By: Nathan Tudor
To its peril, Western culture is increasingly driving young people away from studying the humanities. Unsurprisingly, research indicates this is a bad idea because our technologically driven world needs the humanities as much as ever.
Since 2014, there has been a 25% drop in UK high school students taking A-levels in English. A-levels are qualifying exams for leaving high school and entering university. Less severe but still significant are the drops in students taking A-levels for the arts (17%) and modern languages (8%). This data from Ofqual, the UK government department that regulates academic testing, seems to indicate reduced interest in studying the humanities at a postsecondary level — and America is facing a similar trend. Dr. Benjamin Schimdt at Northeastern University has done research indicating a serious drop among humanities degrees since 2008. And of course, some still remember how former President Barack Obama dissed Art History majors in a 2014 speech.
On one hand, the decline is understandable. The National Center for Education Statistics found that humanities majors often have lower salaries than their STEM counterparts. In our politically and economically uncertain times, people gravitate towards educational paths that promise more financial stability. Ballooning student loan debt only adds fuel to the fire.
The problem is, our STEM-driven world needs people who are trained in the critical thinking skills provided by a humanities degree. And while liberal arts institutions like Westmont aim to provide this sort of education to all their students, research universities are growing increasingly skeptical of the value of funding humanities departments, sometimes even terminating them. And without humanities-minded workers, tech companies suffer.
Ironically, tech companies themselves have already caught onto this. A Google research project in 2013 called Project Oxygen found that ‘soft skills’ (critical thinking, communication, etc.) far outweighed hard STEM expertise among top performing employees. Many cutting edge tech companies are even headed by CEOs with humanities degrees (such as Jack Ma of Alibaba or Brian Chesky of Airbnb).
Anecdotally, I learned firsthand the value of a humanities major at a tech company when I interned at a machine learning startup. Consulting with the engineers, I researched and wrote white-papers explaining the company’s research and technology for non-specialists. This synthesis made it possible for the company to better communicate its value to customers.
What the engineers built, the humanities-guy translated into digestible copy.
In addition, more recent research has cast doubt on humanities degrees’ supposed lack of financial value. The unemployment rates for bachelor's degree holders age 25-34 in the US are 3% for humanities and 4% for STEM respectively. And as BBC senior journalist Amanda Rugerri points out, that 1% difference falls within the statistical margin of error. Humanities majors are also well-trained to work in management and law — often with a higher median salary than those with more discipline-specific majors like business or pre-law.
While STEM education is critical for our ongoing economic and technological development, we ought to encourage and support humanities education for the sake of that same development. Our culture’s conception of the humanities should be revised to accord with their genuine and demonstrated worth.