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What is the purpose of a degree in the humanities? | The Gustavian Weekly

By Olivia Karns Commentary Editor | March 4, 2011 | Opinion

The knowledge of the world’s inconceivable fluidity is crucial. It’s important to keep asking, it’s important to keep wondering and then it becomes imperative to keep reading. Creative Commons.

There is an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) hierarchy to collegiate majors. Some disciplines are deemed harder than others or more prestigious or more marketable or smarter or whatever. These sorts of reputations lead to assumptions about the futures and IQs of the students therein. I have heard a biochemistry major say, “We can’t help it. We make fun of other majors,” and truly it’s a common theme—this sort of “I am better than you. I will get a more prestigious degree, go to a more reputable professional institution, make more money and generally be regarded as better than you.”

As an English major I have experienced my share of others skeptically looking down their nose at me while they wonder what is to become of my future with such a seemingly dated and useless degree. I am sure many in the humanities could list similar experiences. I cannot count the times I have combated the question, “So, do you want to teach?” with a list of all the other most marketable things that an English major could possibly do out in society. While I continue to enjoy my major and am truly stimulated by the classes, this tension between my chosen course of study and its place in the working world has affected the way I view it.

I often tell people how truly valuable English majors are with their abilities to write and edit efficiently. I brag about what successful synthesizers of information we can be or our finely tuned communication skills. English majors also have an acute understanding of word choice and diction.

Having run you through the gauntlet of English major potential, I feel more than a little petty. What makes me feel even worse is the fact that, in a whole major dedicated to studying literature, I never once mention the valuable things to be learned in reading a book. It seems as though even I myself am riddled with insecurities about the importance of reading and discussing literature. Quite frankly, I think that many in the humanities struggle with how to market themselves in the working world while maintaining a certain amount of integrity to their discipline and interests.

What commonly makes promoting a degree in the humanities difficult is the way in which current society perceives them. At their best they are seen as a self-indulgent luxury before the real world and at their worst, a waste of money preparing one for no more than a life time of waiting tables. There seems to be little worth placed in the actual study itself. Quite frankly, even I have been asking myself, what is the point of reading literature? Or philosophy? Or history? Or art history? Or classics? What is the point of any of it?

In asking these questions, I wonder what led me to the English major, and I think it has a lot to do with timing. Before I came to Gustavus, I was stuck on the idea of business and economics. Yet, I began my college career in a state where I knew absolutely no one, eigt months after my mother had passed away. The sense of direction and purpose, not to mention confidence, that I had at home was completely gone.

I stumbled through calculus and economics my first semester, making few friends, experiencing no tie to my chosen field and becoming utterly lost. During this same semester, I took a course entitled “Cultural Identity,” in which I read many books including Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. The book of short stories centered on immigrants from India making a place for themselves in the United States. They experienced things like loneliness, fear and doubt in their search for a new life and identity. It was like looking into a mirror.

Three years ago I was sold on the English major after recognizing myself through eyes which I had never seen, in beauty that I hadn’t yet discovered. Reading the classics or philosophy or first-hand historical accounts or even just popular fiction can be like that—they let you see yourself in a way you never saw yourself before, experience a world that isn’t yours. It doesn’t matter if the book is Anna Karenina or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or if you liked it or didn’t like it—books raise questions in some way or another.

But, it’s hard. It’s hard to sit down and let yourself be vulnerable. It’s awkward to risk taking the time to make yourself uncomfortable and realize that you still don’t know yourself, you still don’t know other people and, even if it’s inconvenient, you still have dreams.

While many are paralyzed with skepticism in regard to the value of the humanities, I believe them to be essential. The knowledge of the world’s inconceivable fluidity is crucial. It’s important to keep asking, it’s important to keeping wondering and then it becomes imperative to keep reading. Literature leads to a finite balance between quiet resolve and impetuous questioning. At a time of emotional turmoil, calculus took over certain parts of my brain, but it was English that really dealt with the soul.

The humanities are among the most important parts of the liberal arts education because they nudge one in the direction of simply living well.

8 Comments

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  1. […] simplicity in this sentence from Olivia Karns at The Gustavian Weekly on the merits of a humanities degree: The humanities are among the most important parts of the liberal arts education because they nudge […]

  2. Marianne Carlson says:

    Now how many biochemists can write like that. Beautiful! mac

  3. Becky Meisel says:

    Bravo!!

  4. CJ Simmons says:

    You don’t have to do a degree in humanities to read (and thoroughly enjoy) Anna Karenina or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Admittedly it did just take me three months to read AK on my commute to work, but it was worth it – what I enjoyed most were Tolstoys observational gems, which were so perfectly written. What I would love to be able to do though is to write nicely – and I guess an English degree may have helped (I would have had to pass my earlier exams to do that though).

  5. Andrew Dean says:

    I think that you make some valid points, but it almost seems like you’re arguing against yourself. I love talking to English majors, they are so well-spoken and informed about, well, everything that it’s extremely interesting to interact with them in casual settings, but the question is still left unanswered as to the practical applications of humanities degrees. I toyed with the idea of being a Lit major because I adore reading and read constantly, but I believe that even though literature would be fun, in the end I’ll be more useful in healthcare. I guess in the end what I’m trying to say diplomatically is that if you have the potential and the opportunity to make a living from a humanities degree more power to you, but I think that those in more “practical” majors have some point in saying that it’s more difficult to find a job if one majors in the humanities.

  6. Kim McD says:

    It’s a shame that worth is only measured in $$ these days…

    I love studying my Arts degree in Philosophy, History and Indigenous Studies. It’s so much more rewarding than a ‘job’.
    I already have one of those.
    I study part time; a girls gotta pay the bills you see.

    My job does not change my view on life, it doesn’t define who I am, it doesn’t reward me over and over again on a daily basis. My degree does all of these things and more. It’s more valuable to me than money or a job.

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