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Demosthenes's avatar

Do you see value in studying the humanities?

Asked by Demosthenes (6896points) 1 month ago

Are the humanities (history, art, literature, philosophy, linguistics, religion, law) worth studying in college anymore?

With the exception of law, STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields seem to have dominance in society right now, primarily due to the more lucrative careers associated with a STEM degree. As someone who studied in the humanities, you don’t know how much I had to contend with being accused of having a “joke major”.

Public intellectual Stanley Fish said that the humanities have no instrumental value, but have intrinsic value. What value do the humanities have?

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28 Answers

MrGrimm888's avatar

There is always value in such things, but I wouldn’t recommend that anyone major in them…

Demosthenes's avatar

@MrGrimm888 I understand that. It’s hard to recommend it, I agree. I wanted to study what I was passionate about, but I realize not everyone can be in college for that reason.

I probably should’ve written “what is the value of studying the humanities?” instead of making it a yes/no, but thanks for the answers nonetheless.

jca2's avatar

I think so. I feel that there are other things that are learned by going to college other than the specific subject matter that one studies. Also, looking at the specific subject matter, I know the things I studied still pop up in my personal and professional life from time to time.

I’ve more often thought that things like algebra and geometry have little or nothing to do with my every day life, other than perhaps figuring out the cost per item when comparing items in the supermarket. Other than that, I’m never graphing things or doing complex math equations. I realize if I made a living as an engineer or scientist, these more complex types of math would be a good basis for further study.

MrGrimm888's avatar

@Demosthenes . I had a father-like man in my life, until he recently died. He had a PHD in music. He never really got anything out of his degree, and actually hung his diploma upside-down on his wall.

Unfortunately, we can’t all make a living being involved with things we are passionate about.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Demosthenes I’m happy to expand on my answer.

People who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it. People who don’t take an interest in politics are manipulated when politics takes an interest in them. People who don’t learn philosophy will be drowned in the sea of bad arguments that face them every day. People who speak only one language are cut off from huge portions of the world. We complain when people can’t find Canada on a map or when they don’t know the difference between a Sunni and a Shia. We tell people that ignorance of the law is no excuse, and we have public debates about what counts as art.

Well, guess what? History, politics, philosophy, languages, geography, religion, law, and the arts are all humanities fields. So are things like anthropology, archaeology, and classics, from which we learn the origins of not only our own civilization but the civilizations of others. And of course, one the main purposes we’ve put modern technology to is the advancement of entertainment (a task that would be utterly pointless without those who have gone into the visual and performing arts).

Denigrating the humanities is like denigrating air. Both surround us, often invisibly. And to be without them is to die—bodily in the one case and spiritually in the other.

I originally wrote all this in an edit to my first post, but I moved it into a separate response since you obviously missed it.

Demosthenes's avatar

@SavoirFaire Thanks for the expansion. I agree wholeheartedly, of course. This quote:

“Denigrating the humanities is like denigrating air. Both surround us, often invisibly. And to be without them is to die—bodily in the one case and spiritually in the other.”

is brilliant. :)

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

I have 2 degrees in the humanities. One is advanced.

My education has given me the ability to reason in ways that a STEM degree could not. I have faced grave difficulties in life that my humanities background has enabled me to see my way through and come out stronger. Without the imagination I gained from the liberal arts, I could have never succeeded in the face of numbing illness.

Plus, I can write well. I’m organized. I’m creative.

Demosthenes's avatar

@Hawaii_Jake I like to think I’m those things, too! The problem is, and I don’t blame people for feeling this way, that many only see time at university as preparation for a career. And while that is one function, and certainly important given the cost of a degree and the competitiveness of the job market, I think there’s value in one’s critical thinking ability, creativity, worldliness, as you said, imagination, etc. that can be learned and augmented by studying the humanities. And I hope we don’t forget that.

Caravanfan's avatar

I was a high honors biochemistry student and took a bunch of science classes. By FAR the two most valuable classes I took in all of college were art history and writing.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@jca2 “I feel that there are other things that are learned by going to college other than the specific subject matter that one studies.”

Exactly this. The vast majority of my students will not remember the precise details of Descartes’ arguments for the existence of God or Mill’s defense of democracy. They might not even remember more technical details like the difference between a circular argument and begging the question. But they learn how little they know and how deep the rabbit hole goes. More importantly, they pick up skills that help them think and reason more critically. Not all of them will choose to avail themselves of those skills, of course, but I happen to know that some of them have. And I couldn’t be prouder of them.


@MrGrimm888 “I wouldn’t recommend that anyone major in them”

Why not? I certainly don’t think that everyone should major in the humanities, but why shouldn’t anyone do so? Obviously, one does not have to major in something to study it, so the mere fact that the humanities are beneficial to study does not entail that they are beneficial to major in, but I fail to see why the fact that some people will not succeed in the humanities means that no one should pursue them. Not everyone should major in the humanities. Not everyone should even go to college. But not everyone should be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer, either.

gorillapaws's avatar

I think Philosophy and the logic/critical thinking skills you learn are highly useful in a variety of “respected” professions, from running a business, negotiating, sales, marketing, and law, to even writing code and doing database architecture.

stanleybmanly's avatar

The neglect of the humanities comes with a price. I believe a great many of our political problems in particular to be the direct consequence of the collapse of education in the humanities. There is a stunning crisis of ignorance defining the country, the direct and palpable consequence of the shocking evaporation of civic education. You can’t turn on the tv without bumping into another “how dumb are the Americans? quiz; you know tje ones where the guy or gal with a mike walks around asking the history and geography questions we all should know by the fourth grade.

RedDeerGuy1's avatar

Yes. If you pay with cash and not credit or student loans. If you pay with cash and not credit then knock yourself out.
Liberal arts is a treat and mostly not very usefull to earn money.
STEM is most likely over full from the preaching of STEM.
The only reason to encourage students to go into STEM is to make the next iphone /apps.
Non-STEM is good for leadership roles and positions of trust .

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

I make no bones about the value of a good STEM degree in what it does to a persons problem solving ability, marketability and general usefulness but… I am of the opinion that an education needs the general information that the humanities provides. It makes for a more well rounded person. That is of course the main objective of education and something that goes above and beyond training. I worked extremely hard to mix humanities in with my education to the point where I delayed graduation in order to take additional and optional courses in humanities. While those courses did not really teach me problem solving skills or challenge me they did provide the breadth required to navigate life. This is going to be an unpopular opinion but those who focused on humanities and did not include much STEM are missing a massive component in their education and should not be trusted with leadership positions. The same goes for people who ignored humanities and focused exclusively on STEM. Our current education system divides the two and I feel this is a critical mistake with profound consequences. I’m also of the opinion that the people who teach humanities need to challenge students more because the material is way too watered down, cheapened and is functioning as a conduit to funnel money into the university machine. I’ll never recommend a humanities degree until this is rectified.

kritiper's avatar

Yes. The value of studying the humanities is that it gives you culture, a sense of being in the history of your fellow man.

mazingerz88's avatar

Humanities should be taught from kindergarten all the way to the White House. In perpetuity.

JLeslie's avatar

I didn’t read the answers above.

Short answer to your question: Yes.

Long answer: when I first read your question I was thinking in terms of taking classes in the Humanities and not majoring in the Humanities. I think one of the great things about a 4 year college education is having the opportunity to take classes outside of one’s major, to explore elective classes. STEM students, Business students, even Construction Management can take a few classes in the humanities, and I think it’s very beneficial.

As far as majoring in the humanities, I absolutely think it is important we continue to have people majoring in these subjects, but also we need to be realistic about jobs and careers also. Wouldn’t it be great if in the future technological advances allows people to have more time to pursue their interests in the humanities whether it be for money, or just a hobby, or to help society and others for altruistic reasons.

I think classes in the humanities should start way before college, and they do in most K-12 as far as I know.

Patty_Melt's avatar

I have absolutely nothing to add. Every answer here speaks something I’ve thought at times.
I think @RDG makes a good point that it is these days more a luxury pursuit than career. While these studies are of high value, and can add to career performance as well as daily life performance.

As a child I somehow believed college taught specific courses to be applied to corresponding careers, and were easier on the wallet. I believed universities to be more expensive, and because they offered courses which were more involved, including studies not aimed to a particular career, but more involved with developing skills of personal value.
I think humanities are viewed by many like a napkin at dinner. They can do without, but it is fine for company.

I think that innovation might take a different course with a human race started somewhere else and no knowledge of our history here.
What I mean is, science has a great deal to discover yet, but things were set in motion thousands of years ago, and following generations set their wheels in the existing groove.
If we focused more on the humanities, we might just see new directions for STEM to go.

Does that sound like babbling? I’m not sure whether I expressed myself well this time.

MrGrimm888's avatar

@SavoirFaire . I could have been more clear, with my response. Apologies.

I suppose I meant that people who don’t have to go into massive debt, or who may already have a career path lined up, would be in a better position to pursue majoring in the humanities. I certainly didn’t mean to insinuate that nobody should major in one of those subjects. To be honest, I think there are multiple English, and math courses, that have almost no benefit to an average student. Yet they are required courses. I would prefer someone replace those with courses that would teach more about what makes us human. It would certainly give us a higher overall quality population.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I had a person very dear to me, that got a PHD in music. He was about 30 years my senior, so I can’t say precisely what he did fresh out of college, but from when I first knew him until he passed away recently, he was very unhappy with the overall lack of professional opportunities that the degree seemed to be relevant to. He spent most of his life in jobs that someone with no college degree could have gotten. The last 20, or so years, he was a contractor who mainly specialized in construction. He grew more, and more jaded with his chosen college choices, as he moved through life.
Now. He was a more interesting person to talk to, as a result of his immersion in the arts, but for his time and financial commitment spent acquiring his degree, it never seemed to help him escape being slightly above the poverty line.

I know a few others who majored in mainly art, as I took several courses myself in art history in college. Those people never felt that they got any financial upper hand from those degrees. In a purely pessimistic view, most simply put themselves into a large debt, before really entering the adult workforce. Starting out adult life, with 50—$90,000 debts, put them in sort of a financial disadvantage.

Not to get too far off subject, but I have always wanted the US to provide/offer free education, including some/most college, to all of our citizens. If that were the case, it would greatly change my opinion on many things related to college…

flutherother's avatar

Those who accuse you of having a “joke major” know the price of everything and the value of nothing. They have majored in something without learning anything.

MrGrimm888's avatar

I have never considered any college pursuit, as a joke. It’s sad that more people haven’t/won’t get the benefits of at least some college. I loved college, but never graduated due to loss of financial aid, and some other issues.
I love(ed) art. But I majored in physical therapy. I took three symesters, of art history. I’m very happy that I did. I wish I had looked into philosophy more, but it wasn’t as important to me back then…

Zaku's avatar

Yes, of course. Though if you have a degree in humanities, and don’t know the answer to this question, something went wrong in your education.

What would our culture even be (let alone be “worth”) without history, art, literature, or philosophy? (It’d be even vastly more crap than it already is, I’d say.)

Lack of understanding of the humanities is how you get crappy people. Humanities should be included in core requirements, and degrees and professorships in them are essential.

That doesn’t mean everyone’s a good match for majoring in them. Neither is any other sort of study, nor college itself.

(And why did you toss law in with humanities?)

Demosthenes's avatar

Law or jurisprudence is traditionally considered to be one of the humanities, though it’s usually treated separately at most universities.

(And I can’t speak for others with a humanities degree but I’ve always seen it as invaluable! The “tech or die” attitude of the Bay Area be damned).

stanleybmanly's avatar

I have this great postcard from 30 years ago by Tom Tomorrow of a baby in a business suit and tie. The caption beneath the portrait reads: Turn your baby into a businessman. Remember it’s never too early to stifle idealism.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@ARE_you_kidding_me “This is going to be an unpopular opinion but those who focused on humanities and did not include much STEM are missing a massive component in their education and should not be trusted with leadership positions.”

I don't think it's that unpopular of an opinion, but it does seem to miss the fact that humanities majors aren't allowed to skip STEM classes. That's what distribution requirements are for. It's the so-called "professional colleges" within a university (engineering schools, nursing schools, business schools, schools of performing arts, and so forth) that let students off the hook when it comes to skipping other perspectives. This is in part because the humanities tend to be holistic (meaning it is part of their creed that learning these other perspectives are part of learning the humanities), and in part because humanities programs are almost always part of a university's school of arts and sciences (meaning they focus on the liberal arts, of which science and math are two prominent constituents).

"I’m also of the opinion that the people who teach humanities need to challenge students more because the material is way too watered down"

I think how challenging a class is depends on many factors—such as the level of the course, the disposition of the professor, and the strength of the program—and that it is difficult to accurately judge all classes of a sort by those that one personally experienced as an undergraduate. Furthermore, I would say that this is true of both humanities and non-humanities classes alike.

My wife and I both attended a community college before transferring to four-year universities. The meteorology class at the community college was very popular because it was taught by one of the local TV meteorologists and wasn't very difficult. But every once in a while, it was taught by an MIT graduate who specialized in atmospheric physics. I took it with him, and it was amazing. I was very happy with what I leaned (which went way beyond ordinary meteorology). Other people took it with the local guy, and they seemed pretty happy with their easy A. C'est la vie, I guess.

Philosophy is also taught differently at different universities. I went to schools with strong philosophy programs, and I think the challenge presented to the students was generally appropriate to the level of the course. But when my wife took a philosophy class at a different university, I thought that it was almost laughably simple (and regrettably one-sided due to the professor's absolute devotion to Aristotle). But the department where she took her philosophy class was embattled. A department always on the verge of being disbanded doesn't attract the best teachers and has to spend too much time on keeping student reviews positive. So the problem may be, at least in part, external.

 

@MrGrimm888 Thank you for your explanation. I was originally a music major, so I understand where you are coming from. Visual and performing arts degrees are certainly a big gamble these days, and a PhD in a visual or performing art even more so. I also think that universities should be more upfront about what certain degrees are good for. A doctorate is credential for getting a job teaching or doing research at a university, and anyone who isn't interested in one of those two pursuits should not be encouraged to pursue that level of education. Similarly, we too often recommend more education than a particular field warrants. Actors rarely need a theater degree, even if they might need more training and/or experience than they leave high school with. Yet other professions (music composition and film directing) tend to have significant barriers to those without at least an undergraduate degree (though as in any art, skill will usually beat education so long as you can get your foot in the door).

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