The Gustavian Weekly

The bonfire of the humanities

By Kristina Ericksen Columnist | November 6, 2011 | Opinion

Here’s a typical conversation for any type of science major: “So what are you majoring in?” They answer something along the lines of biology, chemistry pre-med, etc. “Awesome! You must be so smart. You are going to make so much money someday!”

Here’s a typical conversation for me: “So what are you majoring in?” they ask. “English,” I say. Long pause. “Huh. What are you going to do with that?” I mumble something along the lines of “I don’t know.” Disgruntled sigh.

The problem is not the English major itself. It was the sixth most popular undergraduate major in the US last year according to the Princeton Review. The problem is not within humanities as a whole either. These majors show excellence in critical thinking, writing and problem-solving. And despite their bad rap for being impractical in the real world, Philosophy and English majors have proven themselves by holding the highest scores on the LSAT.

Senior English and Communications Studies Major Katie Asfeld asserts, “These studies are no more or less difficult than those of science, but simply require another way of thinking, critically and analytically. These are skills that are valuable and applicable in the real world.”

In spite of being a Philosophy major, Junior Antonio Herbert is not looking in the “help wanted” section. Kristina Ericksen.

In addition to stereotypes surrounding the humanities, the value of an art or humanities major is being systematically undermined. Artistic expression has been replaced by society’s concentration on scientific and technological advancements. Yeah, I love playing with iPads as much as the next guy (think of all the places you can check your Facebook!) and it’s awesome that we’re finding more water on the moon (RIP NASA). But still, there’s something missing.

It’s art. It’s music. It’s drama. It’s an essential infusion in the human race, that instinctual drive for self-expression. It is the unifying factor between generations, races, genders, and sadly, these are the things that are continuously cut first from state and federal budgets. Yet, science programs flourish. We have to keep up with China, after all.

“Society holds the sciences up so highly,” Junior Philosophy Major Antonio Herbert explains, “there are about ten times as many scholarships for sciences as there are for humanities.”

The prejudices towards the humanities are prevalent everywhere, even at liberal arts schools. Sophomore Geology Major, Jenny Hanson, explains, “People don’t take my English minor seriously, even though it’s making me a more well-rounded person. That’s what liberal arts colleges are all about.”

Hanson is right, the cross-training of critical thinking and creative problem solving gives her a dual perspective to both her major and minor. Both disciplines are applicable in the real world, yet one is much more honorary than the other.

Unemployment and poor salaries are commonly associated with arts and humanities. Some even go so far to question whether these are “real” majors. These stereotypes affected Herbert recently when he switched to a Philosophy major. “I was worried what people would think. Humanities are just a different vocation that’s looked down upon instead of admired. I haven’t told my parents yet because I know they will be frustrated with my decision.”

These negative connotations are completely unjustified. Herbert and Hanson’s experiences with prejudice exemplify the greater battle against the stereotypes that target and devalue arts and humanities, along with the societal pressure to produce more scientific careers and feed the demand of the expanding job market.

“These ideas the world throws at me about my impending unemployment are always in the back of my head,” Herbert continues, “but I take these constant reminders as a challenge.” As should the rest of us.

Fortunately, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Stereotypes of humanities are slowly eroding, even as recent as this year, with Stanford University’s effort to increase the number of humanities majors by revamping their programs to make them more relevant and applicable.

“I see a lot of the prejudices associated with humanities fading away,” says Herbert, “If you have a dream and feel strongly about it, take a stand. Whether it’s science, the arts or humanities, if it’s what matters within your heart it’s just as relevant in the grand scheme of things.”

I couldn’t have said it better.


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  2. John Gregory says:

    I could not agree with you more. Challenges are a way to hone one’s skills.