Defending the Humanities

Cy Burchenal, Opinion Columnist

I thoroughly enjoy prodding, questioning and insulting people about their majors. I don’t do this in a malicious manner; I simply love the debate it inevitably brings about. I’m guilty many times over of saying to STEM majors “the social sciences are the real, original, sciences” and frequently enjoy asking astronomy majors about my zodiac sign.

Such declarations are always made in jest, and I ensure that my victims are aware of this. Often, humanities and social science students, myself included are the ones who find themselves in  the crosshairs of these comments. I was speaking with my cousin, who is an economist, my freshman year; I told my cousin that I was declaring a history major. “Don’t worry,” he replied. “The world always needs another barista.” This was emotionally akin to Aztec human sacrifice, in that it felt as if my heart had been ripped out. I love this line, as it is an excellent jab, and I love the debate it provokes.

Illustration by Haley King

As a student of history I see the legitimacy and value of studying humanities, but I fear that many may not. I’m well accustomed to the line of reasoning that history is an unemployable major; I’ve heard that a lot. Yet this idea is simply nonsensical;  its reductive reasoning is deeply problematic because choosing a major is about more than employment opportunities.

Among the main points made by critics of my major is that there are few jobs in the field of history. That statement relies on the assumption that the history major is of use only to people actually working in academia or other fields of historic study. History as a major has value beyond the field it accredits the student in. History teaches essential skills such as analysis of documents, the formation of a coherent and well-defended argument, and most of all, the art of practical writing. Each of these aspects are central to the study of history, and are valuable to far more fields than just ones within academia. Assessing the work of others and using them to formulate a separate point is applicable to many fields that require critical thinking skills. Additionally, crafting and defending a point through formal writing applies to a plethora of non-academic fields. Writing a compelling paper is an almost universally practical and professional skill. It applies to most every field of formal application and employment.

Critics of the humanities base their assessment on the assumption that the degree in question only qualifies the student in that field. This point is understandably misleading. History, as with many humanities, teaches a plethora of critical thinking skills, and merits assessment beyond simply that of an “unemployable” field of study.