All fields of study are created equal. Some are just more equal than others.
For example, business, nursing and computer sciences are perceived as more worthwhile for a university to have than, say, the Scandinavian languages (who would ever … ) or comparative literature. The latter group of “less valuable” majors, the humanities, is seen as a money-suck for every university: a black hole, taking up space and money that every university could use for more “lucrative” and “pragmatic” departments.
There are two aspects to look at regarding the “practical profitability” of the humanities: how profitable they are for a university and how profitable they are for students.
When looking at the monetary footprint of the humanities on a university’s budget, there’s a myth they are an absolute drain of resources — we let them stay solely because it’s “important” to be well-rounded.
Key word in that sentence: myth.
Because, you see, quite the opposite is true. A 2010 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education showed, for example, at the University of California, Los Angeles, the humanities generate more than $59 million while only spending $53.5 million. Or there’s the University of Washington, where “the humanities and … the social sciences are the only ones that generate more tuition income than 100 percent of their total expenditure.”
Contrary to popular belief, it turns out the humanities typically generate a profit for universities. So certainly they’re worthwhile for an institution to have.
Yet, the humanities get slandered as an impractical institution, leading to the second aspect of the humanities’ “profitability”: how they benefit students.
Rahim Kanani aptly describes the intangible benefits of the humanities to an individual in a recent Forbes column. He writes they “instill a rigor of the mind that is purposeful, logical, independent and creative.” Absolutely. Humanities classes are perfect for developing those “critical thinking skills” college is said to instill.
Personally, the immaterial value my Scandinavian studies degree has added to my life is infinite. This past summer I was able to speak a foreign language, one my ancestors spoke, with my distant relatives. Something tells me getting an accounting degree and doing my relatives’ taxes just wouldn’t be as meaningful. But, hey, to each their own.
Kanani’s article was written in response to an article by Peter Cohan. At one point, Cohan thoughtlessly implies getting a humanities degree is a wasteful, stupid choice. He writes students “could skip college and go right to their jobs as waiters and receptionists.” Ouch.
Where Cohan sees naïve stupidity, I see cojones. Some may say “humanities majors are idiotic for taking an unnecessary risk of not having a job.” Right, that’s almost as dumb as putting yourself in debt for four years so someone can tell you how to theoretically start a business, instead of just going and starting one. (To be fair, there are plenty of business sector jobs that require a degree, and that comment is not aimed at them.)
I’ve noticed this year I tend to inherently respect undergrads who study humanities more than those who don’t. Why? Because they have the fucking guts to do what they want with their life, mercilessly. They take a risk. They don’t choose a conventionally acceptable fallback major for a secure (read: ordinary, banal) life. They’re not afraid of the work, the self-marketing, the long hours with an uncertain payoff. That kind of path isn’t for the weak-hearted.
If you truly love your business classes, awesome, go rock a business degree. But if you’re doing it solely because it might increase your chances of being employed, you’re making a huge mistake. If you really have a passion for what you do, whether it be nursing, French, philosophy or actuarial sciences, you’ll find a job sans problem. The contentment that comes from basing your life in something meaningful to you is worth so much more than any paycheck. And if you’re truly interested in your field, you might not own four BMWs, but you’ll be financially fine.
Returning to the “practical profitability” of the humanities, there are definite quantifiable benefits. Martin Ruef, a faculty member at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, studied grads who started their own businesses. He showed that those with more diverse friendships and knowledge scored three times higher on innovation tests. So if you think humanities subjects like calligraphy or foreign languages are a waste of your brain, tell that to Steve Jobs. He did both in his spare time.
This is the key to the “profitability” of humanities on an individual scale; it diversifies your knowledge and teaches you to critically think. Want to have a cutting edge in your field? Then know something none of your colleagues have — learn to think differently than your competition. It makes your mind worth much more.
The humanities are immensely practical not only for a university, but also for individual students. I can argue in lofty “do something meaningful with your life” terms, but I can also point to the quantifiable reality the humanities bring money to a university and sharpen your mind’s diversity and innovation.
When the next round of inevitable budget cuts come, and the humanities, as always, get scapegoated, I’ll have but one thing to say: Take your stinkin’ paws off my humanities, you damn dirty apes.
Reginald Young (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in legal studies and Scandinavian studies.