The Humanities

by John J. Miller on October 6, 2014 · 2 comments

in Articles,Culture

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October 20, 2014

You don’t have to major in finance


Shortly after giving his State of the Union address this year, President Obama traveled to a General Electric factory in Wisconsin to praise federal job-training programs. “I promise you,” he said, “folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing than they might with an art-history degree.” Right away, he sensed his blunder: He had trash-talked an entire academic field. “Nothing wrong with an art-history degree!” he quickly added. “I love art history!” A few days later, he backtracked further, sending a note to an art-history professor in Texas. Obama apologized for a “glib remark” and said that an appreciation for art history “has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.”

Yet he didn’t disavow his putdown completely. That would have required him to claim that taking a lot of art-history courses leads straight to a prosperous career. And as everybody knows, there really is something wrong with an art-history degree: College students who major in this area or in any of the other soft fields of the humanities have doomed themselves to part-time jobs at coffee shops where they serve caramel macchiatos to the people who were wise enough to study something more practical, such as business or finance. At least that’s the presumption.

As the cost of college continues to rise, the humanities have gone on the defensive. Parents and students increasingly worry about the “return on investment” they’ll receive from tuition payments that can soar into six figures. In this environment, courses on medieval poetry and colonial America begin to look like luxury goods. Although the odds that students will major in one of the humanities has held steady in recent years, some schools have seen sharp declines. Harvard, for instance, says that its humanities concentrations dropped by about 20 percent between 2003 and 2012 — and last year, it produced a 53-page report that puzzled over the reasons why. Yet it isn’t much of a mystery, right? To borrow the president’s phrase, “folks can make a lot more” if they don’t waste their time reading the Iliad, learning about the Northwest Ordinance, or gazing at the paintings of the Dutch masters.

The reality is in fact a bit more complicated. To a large extent, smart people who work hard will flourish, no matter what they study in college — and for many, the humanities are a perfectly sensible choice.

Earlier this year, the Association of American Colleges and Universities published a report on how students who major in different subjects fare over the course of their careers, based on census data. One of its chief findings was clear and predictable: Engineering students do really well. Upon receiving their undergraduate degrees, they can expect to earn more than $40,000 per year. Median salaries double after about a decade and peak at just above $100,000, when engineers are in their 50s. No other large category of college graduates ever catches up, though students who major in math and the hard sciences put on a good show, with much of their success fueled by those who reap the benefits of advanced degrees. They are the clear runners-up in the race for lifelong earnings.

The surprise of the AACU study was a comparison involving everybody else: college graduates who major in the humanities and the social sciences and those who major in a more professional field. In other words, it pitted the English and history crowd against the business and health-science gang.

Directly out of college, the pre-professionals earn a bit more money at their first full-time jobs, roughly $31,000 compared with $26,000 for the others. As time passes, however, this gap closes. When the people in these two groups reach their 40s, their earnings are indistinguishable. In the final stages of their careers, around the age of 60, the ones with degrees in the humanities and the social sciences enjoy slightly higher incomes, $66,000 compared with $64,000.

“We need to shift the conversation,” says John Churchill, president of Phi Beta Kappa, the national honor society. “Too many parents and students have a short-term focus on how much money people make at their first job. Instead, they should have a long-term focus on the whole career. Majoring in the arts and humanities can be a practical option.”

Bosses may not care if their employees can identify a poem’s iambic pentameter or discuss the causes of the Embargo Act of 1807, but they value people with a broad range of skills. A 2013 survey by Hart Research Associates found that 93 percent of employers believe that among job applicants, the “capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.”

As it turns out, students who major in traditional academic disciplines are much better at developing these traits. In 2011, Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia published Academically Adrift, a devastating indictment of higher education. Their data-driven book showed that large numbers of undergraduates don’t learn much, in part because so many courses demand little in the way of reading and writing. The typical college student, for example, studies only 12 to 14 hours per week. This means that for many students, a supposedly full-time education is really just a part-time occupation.

Buried in their book, however, is a fascinating detail. After examining scores on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test that seeks to measure problem-solving abilities, Arum and Roksa discovered that students who major in one of the old-fashioned liberal arts — everything from the hard sciences to the humanities — make big gains as thinkers and writers. The pattern holds true across the disciplines, from chemistry to classics. Students who major in business, communication, and education, by contrast, see substantially less improvement. “We think it’s partly a function of academic rigor — standards are generally higher in the arts-and-science core,” says Arum. Each semester,  these students read and write more than their peers. Their term papers on Thucydides may not have a direct bearing on what they’ll do later on at work, but these exercises nevertheless force them to investigate, interpret, and convey complex information. “There’s so much churn in the labor market these days, students often are best served by developing general competencies,” says Roksa. “We need to think about long-term thriving.”

Income can vary quite a bit within each field of study, too. “There’s always a distribution of salaries,” says Anthony P. Carnevale of Georgetown University. His research shows that although engineering is a lucrative profession whose average performers do well, about a quarter of all people who major in one of the humanities will earn nearly as much as and in many cases more than the ordinary engineer. Carnevale’s advice for humanities majors is to imitate the children of Lake Wobegon, who are all above average: “Plan to be at the 75th percentile,” he says.

The top quarter of art-history majors — i.e., those at the 75th percentile and above — bring home $70,000 or more per year, and the typical art-history major earns about $50,000, according to Carnevale’s data. That’s a lot less than petroleum engineers, but it’s still enough to live away from mom and dad’s basement: These numbers are similar to what people who major in hospitality management can expect, to pick a job-oriented degree that probably looks a lot more practical on a résumé.

The humanities teach many things, including the important lesson that money isn’t everything. It follows that turning careers and earnings into a scoreboard of life is a gross mistake. At the same time, we all have bills to pay — and folks who major in art history or any of the other humanities appear to do just fine.


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