According to recent assessments, the humanities are on the decline. With more and more students choosing STEM and business majors, it seems as if college humanities departments will have to content themselves with a slow and painful disintegration. The reason most students choose to bypass the humanities is a deeply ingrained cultural misconception of what a humanities degree is and the importance the discipline has to a civilized society.
Many students today decide not to pursue a degree in the humanities due to pragmatic concerns. Because it doesn’t have a clear vocational destination like most non-humanities degrees do, it feels safer to choose a degree like Nursing or Engineering, where it’s pretty clear what you can accomplish with said degrees after college.
However, when you pursue a degree in the humanities, most of the time you do not have one specific career goal in mind. Instead of looking at this as a drawback to a humanities degree, it can actually be seen as a great asset. Instead of being tied down to one specific job, humanities majors have many options when they graduate college. They can go into teaching, law, academia, publishing, business, public service, and any other job that is writing and critical-thinking heavy.
When I graduate with my BA in English, I will have the freedom to pursue any number of paths where I can use my reading and writing skills. For me, this is freeing; it means that when I chose to be an English major I wasn’t committing the rest of my life to a single vocation. I was committing it to a life of thinking, reading, and writing well, and those skills will serve me in a variety of capacities after I graduate.
Another misconception plaguing would-be humanities students is the assumption that all you do in an English class (I’m just picking on English because it’s my subject of choice) is read books and then talk about how they make you feel, making the major little more than a glorified, slightly more academic book club. As an English student myself, I can attest to the falsity of this assumption. Certainly, reading great books is a huge part of being an English student, however it is not the whole of what we do. We learn how to analyze, write about, and understand texts of all kinds. Overall, we learn to think well and interpret the world around us with clarity and understanding.
A World in Need of Humanities
Practical concerns aside, there are philosophical justifications for humanities departments aside from financial viability. The humanities include the study of what it means to be human and answers questions like: how did history develop to where we are today? What is human nature like? Is there a God? These questions and others like it are explored through the disciplines of history, literature, and philosophy/theology.
Though STEM fields are important and answer other valuable questions about the quality of life and creation, there will never be a time when we do not need the humanities as well. College programs that cut humanities majors do a serious disservice to all of their students by limiting their options to explore the questions that have been prioritized by scholars for centuries.
That being said, in a world that is increasingly dominated by technology and the sciences, the humanities must be willing to adapt and be flexible to a changing college environment. Without forsaking our integrity and our commitment to training the next generation of humanities scholars, we must be open to expanding our curriculum.
One example of this done well is the recent trend in freshman writing programs to offer seminars on writing for different special topics and disciplines that appeal to students across the campus. This allows students to learn how to write and read well within their own discipline and about a subject they are passionate about. We should tailor students’ first interactions with writing at the college level to their individual disciplines. This way, they will learn how to write and think well about the things that interest them the most. For humanities majors, we should not neglect teaching the classics, but should be open to emerging fields such as digital humanities and film. We must find a balance between honoring the formative past and embracing the exciting future of the humanities.
Humanities and Christian Spirituality
Though the misconceptions about the humanities can be quickly debunked, and the value of the humanities can be aptly illuminated by supporters of the discipline, a defense of the humanities would not be complete without a note on the Christian perspective.
As a Christian, part of my motivation for studying literature is to gain a greater understanding of the world God created and the people that inhabit it. The purpose of this understanding is not self-exaltation or ego-boosting. Far removed from the stereotype of the scholar locked in his tower and separated from the world, the Christian humanities scholar is an intelligent truth-seeker, ably engaging with the world around her with competence and grace.
The humanities attempt to tackle the most crucial questions regarding the way we relate to God and to others, and the Christian life without this type of inquiry loses its integrity. In order for the Christian community to interact intelligently and compassionately with the secular world, we must train ourselves and others to not only understand the character of God and human beings well, but also acquire the reading and writing skills to engage with the culture in productive and fruitful ways. This is not feasible without a strong rooting in the humanities.
So, whether a student’s goal is to develop the essential skills of scholarship, have options in various career fields, or go deeper in her faith, majoring in the humanities is a worthwhile endeavor. I am grateful for my experience thus far and look forward to the future where I can use this knowledge to benefit others and continue learning long after college.