The trouble is that most of life takes place in gray areas. The places where we cannot hold an easy answer or result in our hands and say “look what I learned.” The places where we have to be content to dwell in ambiguity and simply shrug our shoulders. These gray areas are where the bulk of the humanities reside.
We’ve gotten stuck in a pattern of defending the humanities by attempting to prove their relevance, function, and appeal. In taking this stance, we fall into the same utilitarian mentality, trying to shove the humanities into a neat category by giving them a purpose.
But perhaps the humanities are not a means to an end. Perhaps they are an end in themselves. Perhaps certain things are worth doing, worth studying, worth investing in, worth loving, simply because people exist who are passionate about those very things.
In our society, we have built a hierarchy of value when it comes to work and education. Education is a means to an end, a necessary launching pad to a career in which one becomes a contributing member of society. But if education is only a means to an end, we have failed to recognize its intrinsic value, failed to honor that some things are simply worth knowing.
The real tragedy, then, is not the steady decline of the humanities, but the lost love of learning. True learners seldom ask “what’s the point?” and instead, as Mary Oliver wrote, “say, ‘Look!,’ and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.” Maybe this is what our society has lost – a sense of wonder, astonishment, and delight in learning and leaning into what have not yet discovered.
The humanities do not require a comprehensive list of their attributes, a complex philosophical argument, or even empirical proof of their benefits. The humanities simply need passionate learners. Justin Stover drives home this crucial point in his article “There is No Case for the Humanities:”
The humanities and the university do need defenders, and the way to defend the humanities is to practice them. Vast expanses of humanistic inquiry are still in need of scholars and scholarship. Whole fields remain untilled. We do not need to spend our time justifying our existence. All we need to do is put our hand to the plow.
Still unconvinced? Here are some cold, hard facts:
LinkedIn lists creativity, persuasion, collaboration, and adaptability as the most desirable soft skills in 2019.
Humanities students do just as well as, or outperform, traditional STEM majors on the MCAT, and for the Graduate Management Admissions Test, Humanities majors average a score of 40 points higher than Business majors.
- Humanities Indicators, 2011: American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Over the course of their careers, humanities majors’ earnings equal or slightly exceed those of pre-professional and professional majors.
- Association of American Colleges & Universities
The top 10% of earners with history and philosophy backgrounds do better than those in computer sciences…Those in senior roles tend to have skills that are aligned with the arts.
- Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project