Is getting a humanities degree a pointless endeavour?

(Photo by Nicolas Hernandez on Unsplash)

I’ve been wrestling with this loaded question for many years. It’s one I don’t have all the answers to, yet it’s something I keep asking. Being a recent graduate, I wonder if my four-year humanities education was futile.

To address this idea, one must ask — why go to university in the first place? Is it to get a job, an education, or maybe both?

If one wants to get a particular job, heading to university makes sense. To become a doctor, dentist, teacher, lawyer, or engineer, a university education is essential. Students graduate with specialized qualifications that lead to specific positions.

This is why our society values STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) degrees. There’s a good reason for it. Generally speaking, STEM graduates have a higher earning potential than humanities graduates. The World Economic Forum found that “the top 25 college degrees by pay and demand are all in STEM subjects.”

Other studies affirm this fact. Statistics Canada examined which bachelor’s degree programs were associated with higher pay. Arts and humanities graduates were associated with lower earnings, while engineering alumni were associated with higher earnings. Graduates in pharmacy, computer science, and other technical fields were also associated with higher earnings. 

Another related factor is tuition cost. For two semesters, tuition costs students thousands of dollars. If students relocate for their studies, rent, food, and other expenses accumulate. A liberal arts education carries more risk than a degree with more potential for employment, where graduates can easily pay off their debt. 

As a student, I’ve gotten to meet some of my peers in the humanities. Many of them, with their flair for creativity, are aspiring artists, writers, and filmmakers. This poses yet another challenge for humanities students: their education does not guarantee or lead to the future they want. 

You don’t get an English degree or go to film school, and with a sudden snap of fingers, you’re a bestselling author or an award-winning filmmaker. 

A person needs to create quality work outside of an educational environment. Even then, quality work does not guarantee an audience. Many talented writers and artists were unknown and dismissed in their times. 

Due to these factors, enrollment levels in humanities departments are decreasing. Last year, a New Yorker article The End of the English Major quotes Robert Townsend, the co-director of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators project. As author Nathan Heller states, Townsend found that “during the past decade, the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third. Humanities enrollment in the United States has declined overall by seventeen per cent.” A CBC report found that over the past decade, enrollment in the arts and humanities dropped by 28 percent at Western University. And Statistics Canada’s post-secondary figures show a steady decline in humanities enrollment from 2017 to 2022.

All these elements make the humanities path less appealing, even difficult to justify, especially if one’s primary concerns are career prospects and post-graduation earning potential. If one’s objective is to get an education, it doesn’t lead to a direct career path; it’s expensive and financial stability is not guaranteed. As our society becomes more technical, the demand for specific STEM knowledge will take precedence.

Are humanities degrees pointless? Despite the cards appearing stacked against it, my response is no. To enrol in a liberal arts program without a clear career trajectory means you’re getting an education. If the education provides insight, knowledge, and skills for future students, then it has value. A humanities background gives a person a foundation: it can be a base or launching pad for other careers and education. Below, I’ve outlined a few reasons why a humanities education matters. Although, a brief article like this scratches the surface. The points I make are not comprehensive. I invite others to participate, reflect, and re-create some of my thoughts. 

I want to clarify another point. Notice how I said “if.” The following ideas do not wholly align with my personal experience. I’ve had several classes where certain pedagogical practices were questionable at best. This is a separate idea that I’m hoping to explore elsewhere. My thoughts reflect what people can still cultivate from a humanities education, given the current climate.

Becoming A Better Reader

Whether it’s history, literature, or philosophy, a good humanities degree teaches you how to read. Even if our technological environment says otherwise, the written text is still a primary form of communication. Learning how to read well and learning how to persevere through challenging works is a skill worth cultivating. It helps one understand ideas and concepts, which can expand self-knowledge. As Leonard Peikoff once said, “The more you learn, if you learn it properly, the more clear you become and the more you know.”

Additionally, a strong reading habit translates to self-education. In our digital age, the internet offers users a repository of available information. Individuals can leverage their reading skills from their education to learn outside of the classroom setting. 

Developing Thinking

Getting a humanities degree requires lots of writing. The ability to write clear and compelling essays promotes thinking and problem-solving skills. It allows the person to form an argument about a significant topic.

Through writing, students discern and reflect on several points of view before crafting their main point. This cultivates the ability to separate good ideas from bad ones. As a result, the process strengthens a person’s ability to think and argue for the best ideas.  Those who can express themselves clearly, those who can discern good ideas from bad ones, will always have the upper hand over those who cannot.

Understanding Narrative

Humans communicate through stories. Whether you’re reading a novel or chatting with a neighbour about the weather, every day, we engage with stories. Humans understand the world through the narrative form, which is embedded in other subjects like philosophy, religion, politics, and more. Stories also give birth to new ideas that shift societies. History shows us that each era’s narratives transformed their time — for better and for worse. The Renaissance created an era of awe-inspiring humanist art. The Enlightenment nudged us closer to human rights. The first half of the 20th century regressed humanity back into the totalitarian clutches of fascism and communism. Each era has an underlying narrative that informs human action.

Studying the humanities shows you the power of human thought and ideas. By becoming aware of the movements and narratives of the past, individuals can understand the narratives of their own time. One can recognize the flaws of certain narratives that could have dangerous consequences for the unaware eye.

Northrop Frye saw the storytelling instinct as a process of human imagination. In The Educated Imagination, Frye emphasizes this need for narrative awareness because it’s embedded in consciousness. He says, “The first thing our imaginations have to do for us, as soon as we can handle words well enough to read and write and talk, is to fight to protect us from falling into the illusions that society threatens us with.”

Cultivating A Counter-Environment 

We’re living in a time where our technologies are developing at a hyper-speed. AI development has been happening for a while, but its power and capabilities are now readily accessible. In an interview with the Economist, Mustapha Suleyman, the former head of applied AI at DeepMind, predicts that by 2028, people will be training AI “models over 1000 times larger” than the current Chat GPT-4.  With such evolutions and changes, it’s important to perceive what’s happening. It’s crucial to see what changes in consciousness will result from these new forms.

Marshall McLuhan presents us with a key idea. He says, “Without an anti-environment, all environments are invisible.” The humanities have become an anti-environment; literature, philosophy, visual art, and even film have become ground. The figure is the new communication forms resulting from new technologies. In recent years, we’ve seen a rise in AI and new forms of communication like VR. Because these forms are so new, it’s difficult to understand their influences and effects.

A humanities education acts as a tool. Since it is a counter-environment, it makes us more aware of how our technologies are evolving. Contrasting it with the media environment creates an exchange and dialogue between the opposites. This process helps us perceive the broader effects of these new mediums.

About the Author

By David Clarke

Former Editor

David is in his fourth year, studying English at York University. He has a keen interest in filmmaking, writing, literature, video-editing, and ideas. When he isn’t working on his next project or studying, you can catch him watching film-noirs on Turner Classic Movies.


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Jack Crawford

It’s cool to see you mention Leonard Peikoff. Wishing you success