There was recently an article in the Washington Post about college students whose parents forbid them from majoring in liberal arts disciplines. Although it is easy to write this off as overzealous helicopter parenting, it is indicative of a trend over the last thirty years. Undergraduates are eschewing liberal arts degrees in favor of degrees in business or STEM disciplines. It is no coincidence that this has occurred during the same thirty-year period during which the cost of an undergraduate degree has increased exponentially. Parents and students alike are increasingly concerned about the ROI of a given degree.
However, it is a mistake to assume that liberal arts degrees have no place in the business world. Sure, there aren’t many jobs out there that require people to read novels and discuss them with their coworkers, or to write extensive research papers on Jung’s view of the collective unconscious. But what the business world needs, and needs desperately, is people who can think critically, who can listen with empathy, and who can communicate clearly. Anyone with a humanities degree has spent 4+ years learning to do exactly that.
So the short answer is, yes, you should study the humanities if you want to. How do you market a humanities degree? It’s going to take a bit more work to market your degree in comparative linguistics than it will be for your roommate to market his degree in mechanical engineering. This is true. This is because your roommate will be out looking for jobs as a mechanical engineer. They abound. Jobs for comparative linguists do not. But you are smart. You have spent the past four years studying the nuances of language, and have become an expert on the difference between what is said, and what is meant. And that is a very important skill. That is how you sell yourself.
You will also have to sell yourself on the strengths of your accomplishments. I don’t mean your academic accomplishments and accolades; I mean what you’ve accomplished regarding a practical application of what you’ve learned. Internships. They are important for all undergraduates but are imperative for liberal arts majors. Internships allow you the low-risk opportunity to show that you can apply what you’ve learned in the classroom to the world of work.
It is my wish to stomp out this misinformation, which somehow a liberal arts degree will result in a life of struggle and penury. Although I know many liberal arts majors who now make their livings as scholars, academics, artists, and musicians, I know many who have enjoyed successful corporate careers as well. Here is a sampling:
Music theory, IT director
English, marketing director
Art history, Federal Judge
Philosophy, software sales
Vocal performance, CIO
English, network engineer
French language & literature, statistician
Russian history (Ph.D.), museum director
Psychology, nonprofit CEOGoals On Dartboard Shows Aspired Objectives
is another list of Silicon Valley leaders who do not have degrees in either business or STEM disciplines. It is my hope that this trend will turn, and students will return to the study of art, history, language, and literature. Not everyone is cut out for, or interested in a degree in engineering or accounting, and there will always be a market for smart, articulate people. It just might take a bit more effort to uncover it,