Humanities classes are vital

Story by Kyle Shaffer

“So, just what is philosophy?” prodded my sweet little grandmother one January afternoon as I helped remove decorations from her Christmas tree. To my dismay, I had no ready answer.

Was I expected to condense over 2,000 years of some of the most abstract thought put to writing in a succinct explanation? Should I lie, responding, “actually, Grandmother, I’ve given that all up in favor of studying architecture.” How had my years as an undergraduate prepared me for such a simple task?

I responded instead with, “Philosophy is an outlet for people who ask questions that other people don’t ask. People can get along fine not asking these questions. Philosophy is there for people who happen to be predisposed to asking some of these questions. I happen to be one of these people.”

A scoff and a sip of her ginger ale let me know that I had disgusted her sufficiently enough to drop the conversation.

Perhaps it’s the barrage of questions I was asked this winter break concerning the usefulness of my major. Or maybe it’s standing at the precipice of finishing my final semester as an undergraduate student. In any case, something has caused me to reflect on my education and to explore the significance of the humanities within and outside the university.

I’ve often overheard complaints from students about various general-education requirements at UW-Eau Claire, particularly those pertaining to course requirements in the humanities. What does this have to do with my major? When am I ever going to use this stuff?

As the name suggests, humanities, or the liberal arts, are concerned with things that are distinctly human in a way that the natural and social sciences are not. The various disciplines under this umbrella term – such as art, history, literature and philosophy – address facets of the human condition that escape the methods of other disciplines. Serious issues about ethics, where human beings fit in the world and how we reconcile past events with progress into the future are all fundamental questions that are investigated and rigorously studied within the humanities. This is all fine and good, but what exactly are they good for?

Here, a distinction should be made. There are two sets of things students learn from studying the humanities – the content of the courses and the skills that are necessary to engage with that content. So, a public relations major studying for a history exam will probably never need to recall the date that the Treaty of Versailles was signed to get a job. But the higher-level skills involved in any history course can come in handy for anyone in a vast number of situations. Asking questions in this course that go beyond the surface of the textbook exercise a way of thinking that cultivates insight that is attractive to any employer.

Employers have long valued the analytical and critical thinking skills that come from majoring in any of the humanities, and a recent New York Times article titled “Making College ‘Relevant'” suggests that companies are in need of employees with unique insight and strong communication skills. This has no doubt been the key idea that many professors in the humanities have stressed when approached by students concerned about the usefulness of their major.

What’s unfortunate is that, according to this article, more and more universities are seeing dramatic declines in the number of students that major in fields that heavily stress creative and analytical thinking. This data has even led to several universities completely eradicating several majors in the humanities. What results is a paradox – companies want more incoming employees with the skill-set that majors within the humanities can provide for them, but students continue to major in things like business and marketing, with a chief concern about how their major will directly translate into a job upon graduating.

One of the most important things for students to break away from is the notion that a major in some way limits the possibilities for someone with a bachelor’s degree. As companies demand more of their employees, and as business changes constantly within the context of developing technologies, students with a different point of view can become irreplaceable.

This isn’t to say that simply declaring a major in anything will secure you a job. There is a substantial amount of responsibility put on the student to figure out how to make his or her skills relevant and applicable to a job market. But the skills that students gain from studying any of the humanities can help them cope with even these questions and find creative solutions when seeking employment.

Shaffer is a senior philosophy major and guest columnist for The Spectator.