college application and gender

The Humanities Develop Leaders – Not Specialists

In a recent post, we described Columbia University’s Core Curriculum, a set of mandatory classes that forms the foundation of the academic experience of every Columbia undergraduate. It’s considered essential to the education of students regardless of their major. Columbia, in the founding tradition of the best American colleges, requires that students have a firm grounding in the humanities.

The humanities, as the term implies, is the study of the human condition from a number of different perspectives. In the United States, the fields that comprise the humanities include:

Anthropology Classical Languages and Culture History
Geography Linguistics and Foreign Languages Performing Arts
Literature Law, Government, and Public Policy Philosophy
Theology Writing and Grammar – English Visual Arts

Columbia’s Core Curriculum bucks a trend in American postsecondary education to lighten requirements in the humanities in order to allow for more courses that support majors in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Technology (STEM) fields. This is due to the impression held by many that required courses in the humanities, to the extent that they displace STEM courses, might lessen the future employability of graduates.

For the most part, the factors that have driven some students, often against their desires and best interests, away from the humanities have been exaggerated. In fact, the alleged abandonment of the humanities is itself greatly exaggerated. The proportion of students majoring in the humanities did decline from 1970 to 1995. However, the percentage over the last two decades has been remarkably steady at about 10% of total bachelor’s degrees. Perhaps what has led to the perception of decline is that, in percentages of humanities graduates, elite schools like Berkeley, Yale, and Cornell have gone from exceptionally high levels to merely above average.

Historically, the rationale for the founding of American colleges was not to train students for a specialized career in one field or another. Rather, the guiding philosophy was that exposure to a broad intellectual tradition was necessary as the basis for leadership in the community, commerce, and the professions. Although this approach may now seem naïve and unrealistic in a society as increasingly complex as ours, a common set of humanities requirements like Columbia’s still accrues to the benefit of students regardless of what profession they plan to enter.

The humanities teach two vital abilities that are missing from a purely STEM curriculum: communication and critical thinking. In the humanities, students learn to fully engage with the material, consider it from all angles, solve problems creatively and without bias, express themselves well, and adapt to new situations.

In today’s fast-changing environment, successful organizations aren’t looking for management candidates who know one subject in great depth. They’re seeking potential managers who are quick studies, innovative, and creative, the characteristics that more closely describe humanities graduates than any other major. These are the skills that business executives say they want from college graduates. A study for the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 93 percent of senior executives agreed that a “…demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than a job candidate’s undergraduate major.”

A basis for comparison to STEM majors that is usually used against the humanities is salaries, but, according to the New York Times, “…the top 25 percent of history and English majors earn more than the average major in science and math, while the bottom 25 percent of business majors make less than the average of those majoring in government and public policy.”

It may come as a shock to many graduates of elite schools that they don’t get to start at the top in an organization. Students from even the best schools need to secure their first job from which to begin their climb to the top. However, the number of professional entry-level positions in many industries is declining. Much of the work formerly done by college graduate entry-level accountants, systems administrators and analysts, software developers, engineers, legal support, and general office factotums is often outsourced to other countries where the cost of labor is much lower and the education level of workers is sufficiently high. High-speed networking and advances in computing enable the outsourcing or automation of more and more work every year. Being able to get started on a professional career path and avoiding a long period of underemployment is a legitimate concern for undergraduates. Positions involving skills developed in the humanities, especially communications-related jobs, cannot be successfully outsourced or automated.

The good jobs of the future will go to those who can collaborate widely, think broadly, and challenge conventional wisdom — precisely the capacities that an education in the humanities develops — so don’t be discouraged from pursuing the humanities as your major if that’s what you truly love.

IvySelect, a college admissions consulting firm, will guide you in defining your educational path, both in your choice of major or helping you to determine your best fit colleges. We successfully assist students who aspire to attend Ivy League and other elite institutions. IvySelect provides expert guidance during all stages of the admissions process and especially in developing the best possible application.