What is the purpose of a college education? What should an educated, twenty-first-century American know and be able to do? Ongoing debates around these questions permeate politics, education, and the workforce and suggest that we don’t know how institutions of higher education can best serve students. But Kevin Reilly, former president of the University of Wisconsin, argues that, in fact, we do know: “Employers send a consistent message about what they look for in a college-educated employee: the ability to write clearly, speak persuasively, analyze data effectively, work in diverse groups, and understand the competitive global knowledge environment. These characteristics are all nurtured and tested in a purposeful liberal arts education.” So why are some colleges and universities downsizing or eliminating humanities courses and programs? And how can humanities faculty members and administrators make a case for the value of studying the humanities?
Since the great recession of 2008, the prevailing view among students and their parents is that a college education should primarily be a means to find a job. This belief, along with the increasingly steep cost of higher education, has led to widespread enthusiasm for STEMM programs and majors focused on vocations, which are promoted as the most direct routes to securing a good job and salary after college. Students bank on a degree in business, technology, or engineering being the surest path to successful careers. But measuring success is getting more and more complicated in today’s workforce.
While some state governors have taken steps to defund college programs that don’t lead directly to specific jobs, and STEMM programs are even being pushed by elementary schools, today’s business leaders are hiring humanities graduates just as often, if not more often, than business or tech majors. In the rapidly changing and highly competitive global marketplace, businesses want workers who have “the ability to think, the ability to write, the ability to understand the cultural or historical context of whatever business decision they’re making,” said Rachel Reiser, assistant dean at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. As Apple’s founder Steve Jobs said when launching the iPad in 2010, “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”
In May of this year, the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) launched the Study the Humanities Toolkit, designed as a resource for educators and administrators to make a case for the value of studying the humanities as an undergraduate. The data, along with compelling articles and videos linked to in the tool kit, make the case that the humanities help students succeed in a wide range of careers and provide benefits beyond the job market. The user-friendly Web site offers information, data, and evidence that can be used to create print and electronic materials to address audiences of potential majors, parents, administrators, counselors, and advisers.
The first phase of the humanities tool kit consists of five sections:
- Humanities Majors Outperform Others on Many Measures
- Humanities Majors Develop the Skills that Employers Want
- Humanities Majors Find Lucrative and Satisfying Careers
- Humanities Majors Are Leaders in a Wide Variety of Professions
- The Benefits of Studying the Humanities Extend Far beyond Career
An additional subsection provides links to articles on the value of studying the humanities.
To create phase two of the tool kit, the NHA is asking humanities faculty members and administrators across the country to share their success stories: ways they’ve drawn students to the humanities, gained recognition for their departments and research, or documented the career successes of their humanities graduates. For instance, faculty members and administrators will benefit from the example of Paula Krebs, executive director of the Modern Language Association and former dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University, who worked with local employers in the Bridgewater community to better understand what they look for in future employees and to help those employers learn more about the humanities. As a result of these conversations, the employers came to encourage humanities majors to apply for jobs with their companies. Additional success stories might include case studies from colleges that are integrating STEMM and humanities programs as recommended by a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which found that integrating humanities courses into STEMM programs produced better learning and career outcomes than STEMM programs alone. These case studies present strong support for studying the humanities, even as STEMM programs proliferate and sometimes overshadow humanities programs, and could be useful for colleges attempting to bolster their humanities enrollments.
Despite challenges, the evidence is available to support humanities education, not only for its inherent value in creating future generations of creative, adaptable, discerning, and enlightened citizens but also for producing future employees with the skills and wide-ranging knowledge desired by business owners. The Study the Humanities Toolkit presents the benefit of a humanities education both in the job market and beyond and gives educators and administrators the means to prove it.