Deciding major more than just money

Nicole Stone / Contributing Writer

With so many students under pressure to enter fields promising financial prosperity, immediate returns on their investments in education and bragging rights for their parents, the humanities have suffered a popularity shift.

This is understandably so as the cost of higher education is on the rise – surging 538% since 1985. Many majors outweigh others in terms of immediate financial return.

Parents are usually thrilled to hear their child say they intend on majoring in any STEM field – STEM meaning Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics; but the student who proclaims a desire to pursue an education in the humanities is often met with a very different reaction.

The economic anxieties of undergraduates are narrowing the concept of education into something that will provide them with quick financial return on their degrees, booting the humanities off the list of majors that will provide immediate applicable skills in favor of STEM fields.

It is important to note that the rewards of the humanities are not always instant and straightforward, causing the department to suffer, but are very pertinent to an ocean of pursuits.

The obscured value of the humanities has made way for a bad reputation and criticism, even from President Barack Obama who in Jan. 2014 said that: “…folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.  Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody…”

Every time people learn of my decision to major in English, I am met with two different responses, both of which are equally frustrating. Some will say: “So, what are you going to do for money? Teach?” to which I would politely shrug and muster a “maybe” through the internal screaming.

Others will place their hand on my shoulder, concerned for my well being, and tell me how they “want me to be able to support myself.” This is the part where I thank them, if they’re being sincere, and explain that everyone, no matter who they are, faces the issue of job security.

There are very few secure jobs for anyone, and I would be more okay with being jobless and having majored in something I genuinely care about, something that made me happy for the four years I was able to indulge in it, than jobless and holding a degree that I worked towards in hopes of being more employable.

The assumption that humanities majors will have it hard in a doomed economy seems to be the standard idea among many, but things aren’t actually all that bad for us.

In a 2010-2011 survey conducted by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, it was revealed that the prospects of unemployment for recent humanities graduates was 9 percent, right with the prospects for those graduating from science and math fields at 9.1 percent.

Some will still argue that the humanities are a dying pursuit in these changing times, and this could be supported by the massive drop of students between the years 1970 and 1985, when computers were becoming more accessible. The enrollment in the humanities fell off a cliff from holding 17.2 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, to as little as 7 percent by 1985.

By 2011, the number of bachelor’s degrees had stabilized to 6.9 percent. This drop in enrollment is not the byproduct of a mass revelation that the humanities will become useless, though. The decline could be attributed to a number of things, including the increased use of computers, and women’s desires to veer away from the educational pursuits commonly thought to be more “feminine” in favor of more male dominated fields.

Yes, times have changed, but the humanities are still very valuable to our society.

The humanities seek to comprehend and explain the cultural, social and emotional realms of the human experience. In a way, it is like biology–the study of life–but from an emotional perspective. It is more the study of humanness.

A fundamental aspect of the humanities is the requirement to write clearly, concisely. The ability to write is as fundamental to the humanities as basic math and science would be to to the STEM fields. Writing is about developing clear communication, clear thinking, clear expression, about developing graceful dialogue in our conversation with the world. There are endless employment opportunities for clear communicators, thinkers and writers.

Literature, for the longest time, has provided us with an understanding of humanity. This understanding is still relevant, it will be relevant for as long as we are human. So what greater education than understanding ourselves?

Leon Wieseltier, American writer, critic, philosopher and literary editor of The New Republic addressed this in 2013, asking: “Has there ever been a moment in American life where the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when humanities were needed more?”

The search for practical degrees has changed the realm of higher education in a massive way. We are now seeking degrees that will land us money-making jobs, and pull us out of the college generated debt from obtaining them.

Economic survival is not the sole product of what major you claim. Your major will only provide the groundwork and habitat to the personal effort you put forth. Those who will thrive are the self-motivated individuals who possess the ability to think dynamically, and the skill to clearly articulate their thoughts, regardless of their intended career path.

After all, your major will not get you a job; you and your efforts get you a job.

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