For months and perhaps years, there has been an ongoing debate about getting rid of or changing the face of Humanities majors in Higher Education, largely spawned by the volatile job market for recent graduates. One post on Thought Catalog sparked the debate amongst my college-aged peers more than Forbes or WSJ articles ever could. In a world where newly minted college graduates are becoming Starbucks baristas, the stereotype of “debt-slaves and baristas that can recite Emmanuel Kant’s passages from memory” is increasingly common.
In this post, I will explain how I agree with the author of this article, and which points I think are weaker. Generally, this post will be analyzing the anti-Humanities argument and the next will be looking at the pro-Humanities argument made by a few response articles.
First of all, as many of the response articles have stated, the author of this post uses “Liberal Arts” but probably meant to say “Humanities” instead, since he does not seem to be saying that Physics or Computer Science degrees should be abolished by any means.
Second, I wholeheartedly agree that the vast majority of students currently in college probably should not be there and don’t need to be there. Higher education used to be a luxury; four years to discuss ideas and read great books with distinguished professors in their big ivory tower. Does that sound like something a common person would have the ability to take part in? No. Why would they spend those four years discussing famous figures of the Western world when they could work at their parent’s farm or shop instead? Some time in the past century it shifted over to something that was seen as a rite of passage for America’s youth. The problem is not that lots of young people are going to college, it’s that college has not changed to fit this demographic shift.
Third, I do think there is something to be said for the idea that if someone can’t handle a STEM major they shouldn’t be in college, but only if the opposite is also considered. If you took all the STEM majors in a college and all the humanities majors and forced them to switch places for a semester or two, who would do better on average? I think that the STEM majors would do better in Humanities classes, not because they are smarter on average (though…that is a possibility) but because K-12 education has ensured that we all know how to read and write before getting to college, but has done a much worse job of making sure we can all handle fast-paced, complex math and science courses. I think this is where the issue lies; a STEM major can write a good cover letter for a job more easily than a Humanities major can calculate compound interest on their bank account. Both are simple, but I would say one is valued more than the other. Our society gives people permission to say, as an adult, “Oh my god I suck at math haha! I need my cell phone calculator, or can you just do it for me?” but doesn’t really tolerate them saying “Oh my god I’m so bad at reading! What does this sentence mean?”
Finally, the question of access to unlimited information. The internet gives you access to a lot of educational resources and so do libraries. If you want to learn the basics of any subject you can just go ahead and do it–universities are not necessary. It is much easier to self-educate in the Humanities than STEM subjects! Reading magazines, newspapers, literature, and non-fiction can teach you many things. It’s much harder to crack open a Mathematics textbook and have the tools to work through it on your own. I definitely agree that it’s much harder to gain access to expensive, rare lab materials found in University STEM departments than it is to look at a rare book or historical artifact (museums, anyone?). This is why the idea of a “research university” is important. To do research in STEM subjects, you need materials that help you make discoveries and create inventions. To do research in the Humanities, you may need to talk to many people or read many books, or even travel, but I think this research should be treated the way people treat arts projects now. It is a pet project, a personal obsession, an object of fascination that may not help advance our society (do we need another book analyzing Jane Austen or Plato?) but will add to the intellectual conversations among humans.