Justifying a Humanities Major

When I tell people my undergraduate majors, I usually get one of two reactions. Sometimes the person replies, sarcastically, “Yeah. My major was just as useful.” Then they will tell me that they studied English or French or Sociology/Anthropology. The rest of the time, they reply with a question: “If you don’t mind me asking, what do you plan to do with that?” At this point I am supposed to demur and agree that there is nothing I can do with a Studio Art and East Asian Studies degree. Ha!

I have to laugh when scientists and mathematicians claim that the humanities are easy or “soft.” This is particularly amusing to me when those same scientists and mathematicians must compose research papers a cover letter. Then they start using words like “writing” and “hard” in the same sentence.

The humanities teach communication skills. They teach people how to relate with others and share ideas effectively. An analyst might gather financial data and use formulas to calculate time-weighted returns. An artist could then design graphs to interpret and display that information visually. A writer could come up with words to explain the data to a broader audience and place it in a larger context. A scientist might research a medical ailment and develop a preventative treatment for that ailment. Someone who majored in the humanities could spread the word about that treatment, using video, magazine articles, images, social media, etc. to convey important health information to the public.

In general, I am against the notion that there is a dichotomous distinction between arts and sciences. One person can excel at both. I’ll use Barbara Kingsolver, my favorite author, as an example. Barbara Kingsolver studied biology in college. She then held a number of jobs, some relevant to her degree, while pursuing freelance writing. Eventually, her books became prolific enough to allow her to make writing a full-time job. Now, Kingsolver combines her writing skills with her knowledge of biology to create engaging narratives laced with powerful descriptions of ecosystems and animals.  She uses her massive readership to raise awareness of environmental issues.

It is useless for scientists and artists to scoff at one another’s expertise. We need each other. Humans need translators just as much as we need doctors. We need physicists as much as we need creative directors. Some might argue that the humanities are necessary for the purpose of rounding out our lives–making them richer. I would agree. The humanities do make our lives richer, but not only in the way that attending plays, visiting galleries, and reading novels make our lives richer. They allow us to share theories; to form links across families, communities, countries; to call people to action and initiate change. Without the humanities, we would be incoherent to one another. The human body, by which I mean humanity as a collective, would lack tendons.

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