What do college students need to succeed in the 21st century? A liberal arts education. And a humanities major.
First: let’s define those terms.
What is a liberal arts education?
A liberal arts education means studying broadly—taking classes in many different subjects—and building skills that are geared toward more than just one profession. By studying the liberal arts, students develop strong critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills. Liberal arts students learn to approach questions flexibly and to think across multiple disciplines. These are skills employers say they value most, even more than a specific major. In today’s labor market, career paths are changing rapidly, and graduates must draw from a variety of skillsets to adapt to challenges and capitalize on opportunities.
A liberal arts education includes a variety of “traditional” disciplines like English, Biology, Psychology, and History. It also includes newer, interdisciplinary fields like Environmental Studies, Gender Studies, and Global Studies. A liberal arts education helps students make connections between the material they’re learning and the lives they’re living, and it equips them for the jobs of the future – jobs that may not even exist yet.
And what about the humanities?
The humanities can be described as the study of how people process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world. These modes of expression have become some of the subjects that traditionally fall under the humanities umbrella. Knowledge of these records of human experience gives us the opportunity to feel a sense of connection to those who have come before us, as well as to our contemporaries.
Humanities majors have the tools to interpret the past, understand the present, and prepare for the future. They can read critically and communicate clearly. They are flexible thinkers and creative problem-solvers. They can plan, prioritize, and play well with others. In short, they are well-rounded individuals who have the skills and abilities needed not just to succeed in a career, but also to build a life that is productive, thoughtful, and engaged with the world that we live in.
They are prepared not just for their first job, but also for a long-term future in a wide range of career options. Alternatively, they’re also ready to pursue graduate degrees like an MBA, JD, MFA, or PhD.
But don’t take my word for it. You may have heard some people say that majoring in the humanities or attending a liberal-arts college is a waste of time and money, but there are many more people – including employers – who argue that more students should get exactly this kind of education because they know it’s what you need to be successful in today’s world. Check out the links below for just a few of the great arguments that are being made in favor of the humanities and liberal arts.
First, check out Business Insider’s list of 11 Reasons to Ignore the Haters and Major in the Humanities. (Bookmark this link to send to skeptical friends or family members whenever they make a crack about your future as a barista!)
Do you know how many corporate CEO’s majored in English, History, Philosophy, and other humanities fields? Let’s start with Disney, YouTube, and Chipotle. That’s right: the guy in charge of your favorite burrito was an art history major!
What are the skills and qualities employers are looking for? Leadership. The ability to work in a team. Communication skills. Problem-solving. If you’re pulling your weight in a humanities class, then you’re practicing all of these essential skills. Check out the NACE’s 2014 employer survey results to find out more. And there are lots of other surveys that agree: those skills really are what matter. That’s why the job prospects for humanities majors are actually much better than the naysayers may have led you to believe.
These are also the skills that every country needs in its citizens if it wants to stay competitive in the global marketplace. We need English, philosophy, and theatre majors just as much as we need scientists and engineers if we want to foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. We live in a complex world made up of complex people, and the humanities help us appreciate and understand those nuances.
Also, don’t forget that many people who look down on the humanities simply have an outdated idea of what actually goes on in a 21st-century English class (or any humanities class, for that matter!). Our classes are often more tech-savvy, project-based, and learner-directed than you might think. We expect a lot from our students because we want them to experience the big rewards that come from that hard work.
Even MIT is among the champions of the humanities, and Mt. Sinai Medical School is actively recruiting humanities majors. They know that doctors and engineers need more than just focused STEM training.
And honestly, we all need to remember that college is about more than getting a job, that education is less about transferring knowledge and information than it is about helping students grow into mature, confident, independent thinkers, and that the most important thing isn’t arguing over which major is best, but rather understanding the value of a complete and well-rounded education.