I studied philosophy in college. And if my degree isn’t the punchline to a joke about useless college majors, it’s almost certainly a part of the set up. For years, I’ve had to field questions about what I could possibly do with that, aside from having plenty to think about while mixing a latté. Even Marco Rubio took some of his speaking time in a 2015 presidential debate to proclaim that what we need in this country is “more welders and less philosophers.” For many of us in the humanities, it can feel like an uphill battle to convince the world of the value of our degree, with skeptics everywhere questioning the practical value of an English, history, or religion major.
But we’re starting to win allies. These days, even as the call for more STEM majors and tech-savvy workers increases, companies are beginning to recognize the importance of “soft skills” among their employees. In an internal study in 2013, Google discovered that among the eight most important characteristics of top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. Instead, the most impactful employees were creative thinkers and problem solvers, expert collaborators, and curious team builders with high levels of emotional intelligence. These traits are not exclusive to the humanities, of course, but they’re reinforced through deep reading, discussion, collaboration, and writing—all hallmarks of a core humanities curriculum.
One of the things I always loved about my classmates at Reed is that, despite not having a clear pathway to a specific career, they were confident about their ability to find something they would love. From art historians working in farm management to economists who trained themselves to code, it has often been the curiosity of my college friends that has led them towards professional success and a high degree of job satisfaction. In fact, while we could measure outcomes exclusively by median wages—a comparison that engineers will almost always win—we might benefit by taking a broader view of the goal of a college education.
A recent study from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences demonstrated that humanities majors were as satisfied with their jobs as those in any other field, but that they were more likely to say that they have the opportunity to “do what I do best every day” than those with engineering degrees. Many more graduates of humanities programs were “deeply interested in the work I do” than those with business degrees. And for those with advanced degrees in any field (on top of a bachelor’s degree in the humanities), the unemployment rate is just 3%, with a 90% rate of job satisfaction.
These statistics aren’t hard to find if you’re willing to look, and we are lucky that humanities majors tend to be good at research! What we’re not particularly good at, however, is publically proclaiming confidence in our disciplines. I’m as guilty of treating philosophy as a punchline as anyone else, but a renewed sense of confidence in what it has to offer—what all humanities can offer—can make a difference for curious high schoolers who are considering a major in a discipline that might not connect so apparently to a high-earning career.
When it comes to the humanities, we have to be confident that even if the answers are hidden, they’re still there. We have to realize that sometimes the process of asking the question is even more valuable than arriving at the answer. It is the process itself that grants us the skills needed to anticipate and solve future challenges in ways that may evade less creative thinkers. We have to look past the surface to know that what we do best in is likely the field that will allow is to be our very best.