Why the Humanities Epidemic Should End

by / 5 Comments / 875 View / May 29, 2014

At the precise moment when you commit to a college, every family dinner for the next several months will include the dreaded question: “So, what do you want to major in?”

My answer is “English.”

I’ve heard all the jokes, especially from my engineer older brother (“What’s the difference between a bench and an English major? A bench can support a family!”). But I didn’t realize that I was part of the problem until my old science teacher asked me about my intended major, and I replied, blushing, “English… But, um, maybe I’ll do a business minor? Or something math-related.”

According to Yale English professor Verlyn Klinkenborg, the percentage of English majors has declined 62.4% in the last 23 years, and other majors in the humanities have followed a similar trend.

This isn’t because students are suddenly uninterested in becoming Broadway stars, art teachers, or New York Times columnists. There are a variety of explanations for this decline, the most obvious being the ever-present economic recession—jobs are by no means a guarantee upon college graduation, and it’s logical that students want to insure that they can support themselves financially later on.  As a result, students are told to eschew passion in exchange for lucrative careers, whether they find joy in those careers or not.

It’s true that we need money to survive—no matter how passionate someone may be about singing or visual art, passion cannot buy groceries. But we shouldn’t abandon our passion altogether; job security and artistic passions aren’t mutually exclusive.

“At first I wanted to study medicine, but I honestly didn’t enjoy it much, even though I knew it would pay a lot,” says Manuella Valenzuela, a student at Florida Atlantic University. After witnessing how much her high school chorus teacher enjoyed her job, Valenzuela decided to pursue a career in music education. “I don’t think doing something I dislike just for money is going to be worth it in the end,” she says.

Yet it’s also comforting to realize that even students pursuing something more science-or math-oriented can still find a way to cultivate creative passions.

Nick Jamshidi, lead guitarist of the popular South Florida band The Vogans, plans to study software engineering next year at the University of Florida. “I’d be lying if I said money didn’t influence my decision,” he says. “But I’m going to minor in music. My passion is obviously with music, and I always want to continue that.”

Part of the “Humanities Epidemic” stems from the belief that there are no jobs available for people with degrees in subjects like English Literature, and wide-eyed eighteen-year-olds tend to shy away from the possibility of unemployment. But this belief is unfounded. According to The Atlantic, the unemployment rate for English majors is 9.8%. The unemployment rate for students with degrees in computer science, however, is only about one percent lower, at 8.7%.

English majors aren’t just limited to teaching Jane Eyre over and over until retirement, either. College graduates who study the arts and humanities go on to hold a variety of jobs: lawyers, journalists, professors, music producers, psychologists, bank officers, museum curators, business managers—the list goes on, and it spans myriad fields of work. Even leading technology companies like Google and Apple hire English majors.

Last month, I personally attended a University of Pennsylvania students event and met my future classmates for the first time. As expected, a girl enrolling in a rigorous dual-degree program asked me my least favorite question: “So, like, do English majors get jobs?”

I know this won’t be the last time that I have to answer that question. But now, when I tell people I’m going to major in English, I don’t laugh or qualify the statement with a dishonest musing that maybe I’ll take up a math minor. Next year in college, I’m going to study the subjects that make me excited to go to class every day. I encourage my classmates to do the same.

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  • Jawad Pullin

    You’re saying something that I’ve thought for a while now: college is not just about career preparation. In fact, that wasn’t what it was to begin with; the liberal arts were always the major focus for educating inquisitive learners. We should appreciate the humanities more, instead of demonizing them.

  • Molly McGinnis

    I love this. It is so true! English majors — this one included — can receive wonderfully unusual job offers in fields that have nothing to do with Jane Austen. And to think I had a classmate tell me I was “signing a death contract” by majoring in Lit….

  • Pingback: Op-Ed: Bridging Passions and Paychecks through Mathematics | The Undergraduate Times

  • Josh Buckley

    I was rather confused by the title of this article – the word “epidemic” implies that the humanities are like an infectious disease that must be eradicated. Therefore, I was expecting a fresh point of view in this article. However, I was disappointed by same tired arguments about the importance of the humanities that every academic under the sun has continually been regurgitating recently.

  • Keaton Wadzinski

    Check this… http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/11th-february-1944/9/is-english-doomed Notice the author and the date. English has been on the brink of survival for decades..