Why Major in Humanities?

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Last year, when Math majors were struggling with a series  to complete their Senior Thesis, I quietly laughed and wrote another short story. But, a year later, maybe the joke was on me.

Really, I can’t tell. I’ve got a job, so I’m more fortunate than most (since 56% of my class of 2010 wasn’t employed by Spring 2011), but even my fellow Humanities majors who also stumbled onto positions have a similar rallying cry: “Wow, I wish I had majored in Business.”

Being able to “write” is an infinitely abstract skill, something that’s not quite as transferable as “expertise in Photoshop” or “expert at complicated Microsoft Excel models.” And, armed with just a subjective skill set, who’s to really hire the lowly English major? Or the Psychology major, the History major, the American Studies major?

Starbucks, apparently. The pie chart is from The New York Times article, “Many With New College Degree Find The Job Market Humbling” (as if we didn’t know what to expect with a 16.5% unemployment rate for Americans age 18-24).

The pie chart above shows that 10.3% of Computer and Science majors had a job without a college degree, while nearly 30% of Humanities majors had similar positions. Those fortunate enough to have jobs requiring a degree also experienced a divide – the former group made an average of $14,000 more a year than the latter.

Of course, we already knew this. Every Humanities major is aware that their major is something of a vanity project, but I’m not sure they know the depth of it. 

We knew that we would become disposable workers with little-to-no transferable skills, but still we pressed on. Because we loved the subject and common (read: familial) wisdom dictated that you should major in what you love, so you can have a job that you love.

But how can you love a job that’s not there?

Maybe things were different when journalism jobs were a viable option, or when companies didn’t have a vast legion of far more experienced technical writers and copywriters to do their bidding.

But we’ve accepted all of that, too. Fine. What really irks me is the difficulty of changing the track while still juggling $24,000 in loans (mine is $23,000, so I guess I’m lucky). That’s where I think millennials and baby boomers can agree – companies are no longer willing to put time or effort into employees. 

Most jobs require a lot of skills that you should already know. The mystery is how to obtain these desirable traits if you’re trying to earn money in the process. Go to classes at night? Intern on the weekends? Apparently, there are millions of jobs waiting for skilled professionals in a time of record unemployment across the country.

What does this say about the business attitude on training employees? Wasn’t there a time when the grizzled old veteran hovered over the new hire and helped them figure out the intricate and technical details of a complicated machine or software program? Or is that just mythology?

One thing’s for sure — a “better” college for humanities isn’t a better ticket to a better job anymore. I’ll concede that this isn’t the case for graduation schools. But at my company, there’s a colorful smattering of graduates from Ivy Leagues, private colleges and state universities all earning the same amount and doing the same thing. Such is the saturation of Bachelor’s Degrees, I suppose.

Yes, I think there is an argument for “hustle” during a job search, but I don’t think you’ll find any people who are waiting for a position  to come to them. I’d also like to point out that 90 percent of the classes of 2006 and 2007 held a job this past spring, compared to the 56 percent of 2010 that I already cited. I don’t think there was a drop-off in hustle, I think most people would agree it was a drop-off in economic confidence and power among employers.

The real issue, in my eyes, is that online job applications have opened one position up to tens of thousands of potential applicants. That means your cover letter and resume goes unnoticed, unloved, unwanted and companies can sit back and wait for the perfect candidate to shine at them like a beacon.

At the same time, like the companies who sit there waiting for the ideal skill set to arrive, colleges don’t exactly invest in real world training for humanites majors either. Why? Don’t students pay good money for this opportunity to learn and have a good chance at getting a job?

There’s some reasonable talk about how we haven’t properly invested in technical and vocational school training. I think that this should translate to colleges, too. There needs to be an honest discussion about the merits of liberat arts schools that extend beyond how it teaches students “to think, research, communicate, persuade, analyze, run, jump and soar.”

I thought this Salon piece did a great job of characterizing the debate and kind of showing how sacred the liberat arts major has become, while at the same time how detached faculty and administration is with that very expensive degree’s real world application.

This a time where almost every part of our educational system needs a major overhaul, so why don’t we provide some realistic job prep classes for freshmen? What about a class or two that teaches skills that are going to be in demand for something an English or History major may actually be doing?

Maybe literary theory should be a 100 class and copywriting should be a 400. Maybe you should be able to minor in “SEO.”

Most importantly, I think, is abandoning the notion that education is a separate experience from a career. It’s time to admit how intertwined they are, rather than encouraging future generations of students to major in “what they love” without showing them how to process that passion into a reality beyond the Ivory Tower. In short, classes should be combing technical skills with critical thinking, rather than trying to keep them isolated from one another for no apparent reason.

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