Is It Worth Studying a Humanities Subject?

Updated January 17, 2020 Updated January 17

The question of whether to study something you love, or something practical is one that generations of students have asked. If you’re lucky, what you love will be something also practical, but if you’d love to study a humanities subject at degree level, but are worried about your future career prospects, you aren’t alone. We went to hear what some of the top minds in education have to say on this topic, as they discuss the future of the liberal arts at the QS Reimagine Education conference.

The drive away from humanities courses

According to Dr Jenny Bergeron, the Director of Educational Research and Evaluation at Harvard University, the fastest growing majors are in computer science and applied mathematics, due to their practicality and high graduate wages.

The 1970s and the early 80s saw the greatest fall in humanities degrees, and since then people have been increasingly deterred from humanities degree subjects. As Dr Bergeron revealed, this is for several reasons: the students’ parents’ worries about future employment after graduating with a humanities degree, the perception of humanities courses being particularly intensive and a general anxiety to find graduate jobs; in particular, well paid ones that will offset student debt. Dr Bergeron suggested that students wish to graduate with more ‘tangible’ degrees, as opposed to humanities subjects, which generally teach you transferrable skills rather than training you for a specific role.

So, why should you study a humanities course?

With people seemingly moving away from studying humanities, why should you still study a liberal arts degree? In response to this, Dr David Steiner, the Executive Director of the Institution Policy, School of Education at John Hopkins, said “the real question is whether we can find an argument for their existence”.

Dr Steiner explained “creativity is at the heart of the humanities,” and teaches students “what counts most about being human”. Dr Bergeron also said that the “skills developed by humanities subjects are the hardest to automate”, meaning that as the job market sees the results of technological advancement, there should be a greater demand for the ‘human skills’ learnt in humanities degrees.

Dr Steiner said that it’s important to consider what you want to get out of a degree, whether it’s a higher salary after graduation or to expand your knowledge or be inspired – or both. Although the initial salary difference between humanities and STEM graduate salaries is substantial, he said, there is “no difference in graduate salaries after 10 years”.

Encouraging students to study humanities subjects

“In the US there’s an incredible drive to relevance. We have dumbed down the humanities in order to increase enrollment” says Dr Steiner, “the harder the course, the higher the enrollment level”.

To demonstrate this, he gave several examples; the University of Texas’s ‘study of great books’ course gained popularity once the university increased the course’s difficulty, eventually having over 500 applications for only 100 places. “If the humanities want to survive”, Dr Steiner explained, “they need to stop pandering and stop dumbing down”.

He also stated that there is a recent tendency to shy away from studying the past and a general belief that we should only be future looking, but “we were not born without an inheritance and humanities is the study of this inheritance”.

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Why did you choose to study a humanities subject? Let us know in the comments below.

This article was originally published in December 2019 . It was last updated in January 2020

Written by

A Content Writer for TopUniversities.com, Chloe has a bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Reading and grew up in Leicestershire, UK. 

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