What’s the Value in Studying the Humanities?


As jobs become increasingly automated, employers are seeking workers with skills that machines can’t replace – “uniquely human” skills – like the soft skills you learn in the humanities.

“There’s been a steep decline nationally in humanities majors, and there’s a lot of speculation as to why,” says RIC Professor of English Maureen Reddy.

“One reason is that there’s a huge disconnect between what students think employers want and what employers consistently say they want,” she says.

In a survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), 80 percent of employers stated that they want employees who have a strong foundation in the liberal arts and sciences.

The humanities is one of four categories that fall under the liberal arts. The other three are social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics. The humanities include subjects like English, history, philosophy, foreign languages, film and communication.

“Yet students are concerned that a humanities major won’t get them a well-paying job, especially when they face rising tuition costs and student loan debt,” Reddy remarks. “They assume it’s best to choose a major that leads to a large paycheck and that has immediate job openings. But what’s not clear to them is that a degree in the humanities could also lead to a well-paying job. They don’t see that lifetime earnings gains are quite large across all fields in comparison to having a high school diploma only.”

In fact, employers are specifically looking for skill sets found in the humanities. Each year the AAC&U surveys employers and asks them what they consider to be the most valuable skills in college graduates, and year after year employers overwhelmingly endorse the soft skills found in the humanities, stating that these skills “are the best preparation for long-term career success.”

The skills they rate as most important are “oral communication, critical thinking, ethical judgment, working effectively in teams, written communication and the real-world application of skills and knowledge.” The humanities explicitly fosters these skills.

In humanities courses, topics are investigated from a critical lens. For instance, history majors analyze past civilizations and cultures using historical methodologies; English scholars interpret literary works using literary criticism; and philosophers apply conceptual analysis.

Students learn to really engage with the material and think about it from a multitude of angles. They learn to problem solve, deal with ambiguity and complexity, research, analyze, form evidence-based conclusions and communicate their findings persuasively – both orally and in writing. These are highly sought-after skills by employers, says the AAC&U.

Even those students who don’t major in the humanities gain a foundation in the field through the General Education curriculum at RIC. Gen Ed courses provide broad learning in multiple disciplines outside the student’s major and it is required of all accredited baccalaureate institutions. An added benefit of two years of Gen Ed is that often by taking a course in an area they knew nothing about, students develop a passion for it.

So, before you go and switch your philosophy major to a major in business because it sounds more lucrative, keep in mind that billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban said that if he was in college, he’d choose a philosophy major over accounting because he believes many jobs that involve technical tasks, such as an accountant’s, will be replaced by artificial intelligence. Philosophy, on the other hand, is like an agility training exercise for the brain. It teaches reasoning and logic, it trains the brain to bend, twist and think in directions that it is not used to thinking and to question everything. These are skills that will be very difficult to replace with AI and they are transferable to any job.

Examples of successful business people who majored in the humanities:

• Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO – communications major

• Susan Wojcicki, YouTube CEO – history and literature major

• Jack Ma Yun, former executive chairman of Alibaba (China’s version of Amazon) – English major

“Ultimately, the jobs available today are probably not the jobs students will be looking at 10 years down the road,” says Reddy, “so having skills that can be applied to many different work environments is critical to future success.”

Also see:

“New Course Helps Humanities Majors Prepare for Professional Careers”

“7 Skills Gained from the Humanities”

“What Do You Do With an English Degree”