The Course of Reason

In Defense of the Humanities

May 15, 2013

Leonard da Vinci manIt's getting to be that time of year again. You know. Gradamutation time. The time when you evolve from Undergrad to GRADUATE. It's exciting, I know. And now you get to go out into the big bag world and get a low-paying mind-numbing job and convince yourself that your degree was worth something. That bit is less exciting. Now I know all you STEM folks out there are patting yourselves on the back and feeling pretty smug about your life choices when you look at your humanities friends, but yours truly was a philosophy and religion major, and over the course of my time in school I got a little bit sick of skeptic and atheist scientists looking down their noses at me.

And so as some of you nervous humanities majors make your way towards the podium in the next few weeks let me remind you why the humanities are so utterly fabulous and why you should be proud of your degrees, especially when living in a skeptical community.

1. The humanities were the birthplace of the sciences.
Now this one is a little controversial, but hear me out. Originally we had philosophers. These were the people who did math and science and theology and philosophy and pretty much everything else. They figured that they wanted to understand the world, so they tried in every possible way they could. This is the birthplace of both science and philosophy in the Western world, and it looked a lot more like the humanities than it did the sciences. But what about modern science? Well our dear friend Francis Bacon who formalized the scientific method for the first time was a top-notch philosopher, and he was actually practicing philosophy when he created the scientific method. So while science as a method is a great thing, it did come out of the methods of inquiry that the humanities started.

2. The humanities teach you great critical thinking skills.
In most of the humanities you have to argue for an interpretation of data. There is no answer, there is no right or wrong, but there is a lot of trying to find evidence and trying to find ways to put the evidence together in coherent manners. This means a lot of researching, a lot of integrating viewpoints, and a lot of critical thinking to reject the bad interpretations.

3. The humanities tend to be more interdisciplinary.
Now I'm not saying that the sciences are NEVER interdisciplinary, but when you think liberal arts and thinking big and mashing all the departments together, you tend to think of the humanities. And interdisciplinary thinking is a GREAT skill to have, one that a lot of people miss out on in their college experiences. Because we have so much depth of knowledge, we like to specialize a lot. But there are great benefits to understanding multiple ways of looking a problem, lots of methods, lots of theories, lots of disciplines. They give you a broader understanding of a phenomenon or a problem, and interdisciplinary thinkers are often some of the most creative and inspiring.

4. Workplaces are shifting somewhat in hiring attitudes: they're looking for people who know how to think rather than specifically trained individuals.
The humanities often give you a broad background in ways to think. Particularly if you were in a liberal arts college, you learned how to communicate, you learned how to research critically, you learned how to discuss, you learned how to approach new topics and pick them apart in an intelligent manner. While many workplaces still want to see that you're trained for the exact job they're hiring for, there are some that are shifting and looking for people that have demonstrated that they can think and problem solve and learn.

5. The humanities cover integral parts of life.
Some strict materialists like to argue that sciences are the only important disciplines because they study "real" things. Well I hate to break it to those people, but things like psychology and sociology and English study real things. They study real artifacts of humanity and human culture. And those are important things to know about because they are constant parts of our everyday lives. Some people might dismiss anthropology or sociology because they're not practical, but what could be more practical than trying to understand how human beings interact with each other on a day to day basis? Studying the humanities makes you better able to understand your human world, not just the natural world.

So rejoice in your humanities degree! All is not lost! You can get a job (says this philosophy and religion major who is working). You can find jobs that aren't soul-sucking (she said, sitting at her non-profit job). You can go on to grad school and still not drown in debt (ok I don't have evidence for that one yet but my sources tell me it's possible). And you can look back on your education knowing that you did something you enjoyed and cared about and came out a more well-rounded and understanding person for it.


About the Author: Olivia James

Olivia James's photo

Olivia James is a recent graduate from St. Olaf College who is now navigating the post-college pre-grad school waters. She was a philosophy and religion major and was a member of St. Olaf's SSA. She is also an avid swing dancer, voracious reader, and all around nutjob. 




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