Have a Little Humanities

Image Courtesy of Alexandre Duret-Lutz

I was working in a small gym in my home town over the summer before my freshman year of college. I'd been accepted to UMass several months before, and I had already declared a major: philosophy. I still remember the expression on everyone's faces when I told them what I'd be studying in school; their eye brows rose a half-inch or so, their lips tightened, it was as if I'd said a dirty word. Philosophy. To most of the people who came through the doors each day, the thought of their college-bound son or daughter announcing that they were going to study anything that wouldn't eventually result in a business degree, would have been shocking. But my mind was made up; and so, the vast majority of the conversations I had that summer were essentially a desperate, floundering attempt to answer the ultimate question facing any eighteen-year-old who wants to study humanities in college: Well how will you ever get a job with a degree like that?

The following article is an introduction to a series of articles examining the experiences of students studying the Humanities and Fine Arts in college. Anyone who chooses to pursue a degree in this field will quickly find out that the vast majority of people consider the humanities to be an impractical, if not entirely frivolous, branch of higher education. But why should this be the case; do the humanities really deserve to be dismissed so whole-heartedly? Are we really all just wasting our time?

In an effort to answer some of these questions, we will need to take a look at the positive and negative aspects of an education in the humanities and fine arts, as well as the successes and failures of the degree programs themselves in preparing students for life after college. Ultimately, if we as students, as well as educators, are going to continue to believe what we've been taught since our first days in high school, namely: that earning a degree from a four-year university will eventually result in our being hired for better, higher-paying jobs upon graduation, than job skills and job market preparedness must be an integral part of every college student's academic experience. 

Subsequent articles in this series will contain interviews with several students studying the humanities throughout the Five Colleges. They'll discuss their personal experiences and their opinions regarding some of the questions posed above; but before we delve into all that, let me take a moment to explain why, despite all of the apparent draw-backs, I continue to believe that studying the humanities and fine arts is essential in becoming an educated and well-rounded individual.

I will be graduating from the University of Massachusetts Amherst this coming May with a degree in Philosophy. I actually will be completing a second major as well, English; still, this won't exactly drastically increase my employment opportunities. But when I look back on my last four years, the countless hours spent with my nose crammed between the pages of old books written by authors with names like Sartre, Rousseau, Heidegger, Levine, or Wordsworth, Keats, Ellison, and Twain; I know that if I had to do it all over again, I would still be a humanities major. The humanities, literature, philosophy, poetry, art; these are the sort of things that teach us to think in new and more productive ways. They teach us to think critically, creatively, analytically, symbolically; they allow us to see more in each passing day, to find more meaning and beauty in the world around us. When we engage with art and literature, it moves us to think in a way that is deeper, more insightful, more lasting than even the most tantalizingly trivial sub-Reddit feed could ever hope to provide. In short, studying the humanities teaches us how to live more fully.

All this being said, my experience as an undergraduate in the humanities has not been without its struggles or limitations. Despite receiving good grades, learning a whole lot, and even getting myself one of those all-important internships everyone's been telling me about, when I began looking towards graduation, and my impending entry into the workforce, I can't help but feel like a little kid on a tricycle trying to merge onto the interstate. So now, thinking back on all the skills I've learned in my four years at UMass, I realize I still have a whole lot to learn, but I'm beginning to find my answer to that all-important question: how will I ever get a job with a degree like that?

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