Letters: ‘Life Philosophy Is More Than a Credential’

Readers discuss the benefits and pitfalls of studying the humanities in college.

Richard Baker / Getty

The Humanities Are in Crisis

In August, Benjamin Schmidt wrote about the decline in college humanities majors. “Students aren’t fleeing degrees with poor job prospect,” he wrote. “They’re fleeing humanities and related fields specifically because they think they have poor job prospects.”

Regarding the crisis of declining humanities degrees, I, an old STEM-degree holder, offer an alternative hypothesis. I see college-age people as idealistic as ever, as committed to making the world a better place as ever. I suspect that degree choice driven by perceived earning power applies to about the same subset of the population as always.

Rather, I think what’s changed is beliefs about how exactly to make the world a better place.

Studying the humanities has not made us more humane. Studying history has not made us less apt to repeat it. Political science has demonstrably not improved our political climate. I suspect these are widely held beliefs among college-age people.

Meanwhile, although the better life promised by technology is more limited in scope, depth, and profundity, STEM has been proving more able to deliver on its promises. If you were to ask college students what avenue of study has done the most to make the world better over their lifetime, I think technology would be their overwhelming response.

I don’t necessarily agree with that sentiment, but I think it might be a better explanation for their degree choices.

Brian Boerman
Pleasanton, Calif.

As a former English professor who left the academy in heartbreak and outrage, I appreciated Benjamin Schmidt’s essay. I also recognized its veracity as I reflected on my own teaching: If I started with 100 first-year students each semester, only two or three would express interest in English as a major, and even fewer would complete the degree.

Mr. Schmidt offers insightful theories for the decline in humanities majors, and I would like to add this one: Humanities disciplines require reading and writing—serious, long-form, sophisticated reading and writing—and those activities are not only unfashionable these days, but also rarely practiced among students and rarely required by faculty.

Students in the sciences are asked to do reading, and we have all seen the heavy tomes that are biology texts, but that kind of reading demands synthesis of information; in the humanities, our reading often calls for interpretation. Ambiguity abounds, style as well as structures of power are debated, and one must venture into historical documents and texts (in foreign languages, no less) in ways seldom required in chemistry and computer science.

My students were generally reluctant to read, especially when the reading was not “fact-based” or “data-based” or accompanied by a straightforward multiple-choice quiz. They found reading to be boring. They also found it hard. And because students who struggle with reading also struggle with writing, and because both reading and writing are integral to the humanities, well, one can see why many of today’s students are abandoning humanities for other pursuits. They find other ways to develop and utilize their intellect, and I acknowledge that many of those ways are quite impressive.

So, good for the students. But readers, woe for us.

Lori Isbell
Colorado Springs, Colo.

The article titled “The Humanities Are in Crisis” seems to be meant for the children of the hyper-wealthy. I can’t imagine worse advice for anyone without a trust fund.

This generation has the highest educational debt load ever. It is not hyperbole to say that debt load has influenced this generation to have children later in life (or to not have them at all), and has influenced many other less important decisions as well. Further, I doubt the author understands what it is like to live with a debt load north of $100,000. I have, as have many of my friends—it is terrifying.

Little I learned from my humanities studies prepared me for the real world. It was interesting and fun for sure, but impractical. I learned what I needed to know by working, as I think most do.

The truth is, the world is a dangerous place if one is not born wealthy, and one health malady can be the difference between financial ruin and skating by. Forgoing a marketable skill in this day and age is playing Russian roulette with one’s life.

Isaac Tilton
Maitland, Fla.

Another perspective on this issue suggests looking ahead to career opportunities, in addition to looking back at statistics on educational choices. We need to give more consideration to what our country needs, namely, college graduates well trained in critical thinking with an emphasis on how to effectively and ethically address problems characterized by complexity, in whatever fields they may end up pursuing. There has always been a market for humanities majors who have acquired the skills required to take on multifactorial challenges while avoiding the pitfalls of oversimplification, and who, in the process of learning how to reflect in ambiguous situations, have developed a resilient moral compass. Given the current status of our country, such graduates are needed more than ever, and will be in demand well into the future. (By way of disclosure, I am cross-trained, with degrees in both the humanities and the sciences.)

Timothy Howell, M.D., M.A.
Madison, Wis.

I’m a humanities major, and I’m not worried. But I should be specific: I’m a humanities major at an Ivy League university. My school has a 100-year-old humanities curriculum that everyone takes regardless of major: the “Core.” For the most part, we embrace it; world famous professors teach courses from “Literature Humanities” to “Masterpieces of Western Art,” and it’s our ticket into New York’s snooty hyperintellectualism.

Professor Schmidt insightfully notes that humanities majors at elite schools are losing the pie chart to STEM majors. But we haven’t lost the pie.

The truth is, I can defend the humanities because my brand-name college will protect my job-market prospects when my major doesn’t. Recruiters frequently tell us that their investment banks want philosopher-consultants. But I can’t imagine this is the case for humanities students everywhere. Going up the college rankings ladder, the advice changes: from “Don’t do it” to “It doesn’t matter.” The pursuit of humanities is tiered, and America’s advice “not to do it” will first reach students who are, on average, less wealthy, less connected, but intelligent just the same.

Professor Schmidt’s clarion call for the humanities cannot be answered by only the elite, because life philosophy is more than a credential.

Andrew Wang
New York, N.Y.

While Mr. Schmidt makes some good points, he didn’t address the current public antipathy to the humanities. Here in Kentucky, our governor (a former Asian studies graduate) wants to change school-funding formulas to financially reward universities for stem majors and disincentivize humanities majors. “There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French-literature majors. There just will,” Governor Matt Bevin told the Associated Press. “All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer.”

Bevin’s comments are similar to those of the former presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, who have questioned liberal-arts majors such as philosophy and psychology, respectively.

Attitudes like these politicians’ are at least partly to blame for a recent cut in humanities degrees available at state institutions. Eastern Kentucky University cut bachelor’s-degree majors in theatre, comparative humanities, and French last year, denying interested students the possibility of majoring in those fields.

And the private sector is no better. Amazon’s tuition-reimbursement program will pay hourly (nonexempt) workers to study dental hygiene or medical transcription, but not the humanities.

Personally, I don’t see how one endures the chaos of our current era without the clarifying lens of the humanities to put everything in context, but that comfort is apparently to be denied the next generation. Why would they choose a path that appears on the surface to offer them nothing but derision, irrelevance, and debt?

Valerie Powell
Paris, Ky.

History is a valuable subject, and I believe that everybody should study it at least once, just as I believe that everybody should have the experience of riding a horse, even though it may no longer be the popular mode of transportation that it once was. And just as we will always need farriers, there will always be a need for a few professors of history.

But calling the $5,000 to $10,000 annual shortfall in earnings suffered by humanities majors a “slight” difference seems like a stretch. A difference of that size would add up to $200,000 to $400,000 over a 40-year working life, ignoring for simplicity the time value of money.

Even worse, this shortfall is based on a comparison with the “average” major. Universities do not offer a major in “average.” There are only specific subjects, and a student who studies finance or computer science is likely to be better off than one with a terminal bachelor’s in English, as Professor Schmidt himself notes. “Average” is a straw man.

Even more preposterous is the tired argument that one might as well major in subjects like art history because there could possibly be a surplus of computer-science majors four years from now. Why risk destitution when you can all but guarantee it?

Finally, the assertion that “being the type of person inclined to view a college major in terms of return on investment will probably make a much bigger difference in your earnings than the actual major does” is presented without supporting data. To anyone who has ever applied for a job or sat through a job interview on either side of the table, it is positively risible.

Robert Messing
Mountain View, Calif.

Humanities major here—I’m an English major and French and francophone studies minor at a liberal-arts college. I went to a STEM-focused high school and when I shared my intent on studying humanities in college, a number of peers and adults attempted to steer me in other directions. The idea that I had made it through all these talks about the job opportunities in STEM and I had still chosen the humanities somehow meant that I didn’t care about money or success. Some people found it—and still find it—endearing that I’m interested in the humanities.

Especially if you’re a first-generation or low-income college student and the common rhetoric bolsters the idea of finding a stable, well-paying job in STEM, why would you take what’s perceived as a risk and go against that norm? Among a lot of my peers I’ve seen this rhetoric reinforced by their parents, who insist their children get a useful degree like computer science or economics, despite their children’s wishes to major in something else.

My desire to major in a humanities field was reinforced by the fact that my dad completed his undergraduate degree in the humanities and now has a well-paying, successful career. Without that tangible proof of the triumph of a humanities degree, I’m not sure I’d still be pursuing one. But I continue to persist with my English degree, even though some days it feels like the rest of the world is telling me to do otherwise.

Meredith Oldham
Austin, Texas