The One Thing Colleges Can Do to Redeem the Humanities

Undoubtedly, the Great Recession has caused us to rethink our priorities. We can’t wait for a dream job; we have to take any job. We can’t remain content with what we know; we have to create learning opportunities for new skills.

And for college students, you can’t study what you want, because you can’t afford to be unemployed as a college graduate.

With advocates more forgiving of college graduate unemployment supporting the option of graduates moving back home with Mom and Dad , detractors often support prioritizing college major choice as a crucial tool in eliminating it. As the unemployment rate varies among degrees, with humanities and liberal arts graduates suffering more, most voices and opinions are crying for college students to choose marketing or finance and leave their creative writing and photography for the weekends, buffered by research from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce saying “choice of major substantially affects employment prospects and earnings.”

Michelle Singletary of The Washington Post questioned liberal arts choices for majors through her own deliberation:

An English major with no internships or any plan of what she might do with the major to earn a living? No job.

A political science major with no internships that could lead to a specific job opportunity? No job, I think.

Engineering major with three relevant internships in the engineering field? Ding. Ding. We have a winner. Job.

Fundamentally, this dogma says “choose a major that gets you a job.” It’s this dogma that’s inspired the slope of a 2012 Forbes article that slips as far to support gutting humanities departments because of the lack of employability for their degreed students.

However, Singletary’s reasoning missed one crucial point – the liberal arts majors had no internships. Since that is the only difference between these examples, what would be her answer should the English major have had a desktop publishing internship and a editorial internship? Would that student have been a winner?

I’d argue yes. The true measure of employability is professional preparation and experience – experience that leverages the strengths, skills and talents humanities students inherently have from their study.

Humanities graduates have these applicable (and transferable) skills, strengths, and talent from their liberal arts course work: cognitive load management, presentational skills, analytical thinking, synthesis, research, writing, and editing skill, plus many more. Principally, as humanists specifically and college students generally, they gain the crucial written and verbal communication necessary to succeed in any professional environment. If these skills are so adaptable, why such a high unemployment rate? And if Georgetown’s Center director says “that occupational skills are more and more important and more and more lucrative, ” why does the discussion center on eliminating or curbing study in degrees that unequivocally provide these occupational skills?

It’s the lack of professional application that leads humanities graduates to suffer. Career blogs say getting the job and having career success is in how you sell yourself and how you relate to others. For students, it’s about how they sell their education – first to get the internship and then to get the job. And that comes from networking, informational interviews, and job searching – strategies many liberal arts students forgo during their study, naively trusting their skills as their sole qualification for employment.

Writing in cover letters we can speak extemporaneously, write efficiently, and think effectively, many humanities students suffer from not knowing how to translate these skills into a professional environment, the crucial evaluation tool that differentiates writing endless cover letters and scouting for apartments online. Here, Socrates’ sage advice details the crucial factor that can direct career success for humanities students: Know thyself. We have to know ourselves, to know 1) what we want and 2) what we are meant to bring, in order to successfully align our strengths with a specific industry or a certain job’s requirements. It makes the difference between mediocre performance and significant success.

Many humanities graduates don’t choose or haven’t chosen a career path because they don’t know what they want. However, Career exploration – searching for possible careers, learning about them, and planning how to get experience in those fields – is a fundamental must for humanities students, simply because of the career variety their skills can bring. Spending 13+ years running the marathon of school education can limit your purview as to what is possible for you, thinking classrooms and homework is all that there is. Indecision and ignorance hinders any meaningful professional work. In turn, many ignore intentionally seeking out internships, or developing their interests, skills, and values and presenting them in interviews in order to get those experiences. Those career skills – and the success of using those skills – are not dependent upon your course of study.

If humanities students are unsure how to transfer their skills into professions, let alone what possible career they could choose based on their skills and interests, colleges and universities will have to answer questions about how employable their graduates are.

But this is not an issue. Career centers have staff and resources to help with employing graduates, from recommendations for skill assessment tests, timelines and strategies for job searching, and potential internship employers. We need to strengthen their presence in undergraduate life, beyond the senior year rush. Doing so will produce more of the stories we already have: English majors doing graphic design, young art history experts working in consulting, sociology students leading research assistantships, culture and politics students working for U.S. Congress, government enthusiasts doing press work for political campaigns, working as marketing account assistants, or writing for publications. Because there is no direct career path for many liberal arts, we conclude that that they are not professionally solvent. The perspective must change. Instead of what could you do with that? It must be, what you do plan on doing with that? The possibilities are only as limited as our imagination.

And our current imagination is limited to the salary numbers and immediate employability even before the students cross the stage in late Spring and Summer. The conversation about the value of humanities directs our consideration of higher education as a method to increase our profit margins. Is our professional lives the main reason we pursue education? Arguably so. Education is the central thoroughfare for economic mobility. However, given that there are skills inherent in education that can be applied to any job (the central point in the argument for attaining bachelor degrees), adequate and targeted career counseling can be the assistance necessary to push humanities graduates through to employment.

In supporting their idealism and vision, colleges and universities must also be more vigilant with enforcing practicality with their liberal arts students. Encourage them in their study of the human, for studying the human condition can generate greater understanding of the social, economic and moral crises facing us today, while encouraging – possibly requiring – professional development and internships to apply that study to the world at large to increase their likelihood of employment after their graduation.

Laura McMullen’s advice from U.S. News article citing a National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) study echoes the universal preparation and application of humanist study:

Edwin Koc, who wrote the NACE report cited above, states in it that “the objective of a liberal education…is to prepare you broadly for the professional world so that you are prepared to undertake many jobs rather than to be trained to do a specific task.”

We learn how to write well from an English professor. We learn how to analyze research results from a Sociology and Psychology professor’s data assignment. We learn how to see and build visually intriguing messages from art and design professors. And for the business-minded, we learn how to save money lost from pulling and redoing a culturally insensitive advertising campaign from an African-American studies or Latino studies professor.

We must embrace the meaning-making from the human experience liberal arts graduates have learned. Without it, we simply behave to our political, social, and economic forces with no awareness or self-evaluation. Ironically, without the careful, deep analysis from the humanities, we end up with ill-informed hasty solutions for human issues like suggestions to cut whole humanities departments, without looking deeper for the more insidious problem that we take for granted as not existing, becoming a greater liability for collective success the longer it is unaddressed.

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