Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Why I'm Not a Humanities Major

This was spurred by a Google+ discussion initiated by the TA for my class. While not strictly associated with anything digital (the ostensible focus of this blog), it is certainly telling of the current state of affairs in education and it addresses the concepts of creation and consumption.

One might assume that I, as one studying physics and mathematics, might look down on humanities majors. I know people in my field who scoff upon hearing about humanities majors, derisively suggesting that they are not in touch with what is "important" or "useful". Jokes abound about people with humanities degrees in dead-end jobs or unemployed. This is not uncommon behavior among "my people", so to speak. However, if you read on you will see that my viewpoint could scarcely be further from this.

As a disclaimer, in writing this I mean no offense to any language, art, philosophy, or similar major. I think that those fields are offer beautiful things that can add great aesthetic value and even influence behavior. Furthermore, I make no claim that the benefits of the humanities are therein limited. I will add as well that in what is about to follow I do not imply a lack of great intrinsic value for studies in humanities. In short, I do not subscribe to the common STEM-major scorn that humanities are "useless".

To continue that thought, if we are to look at the situation from a strict interpretation of utility in which humanities would be "useless" inasmuch as they do not supply society with any tangible or quantifiable good, then many areas of science and almost all of math are likewise "useless". I am currently enrolled in a class called Introduction to Topology. So far, in that class, we have, after a month of studying and proofs, just about reached the point of defining the set of real numbers (If that doesn't already sound useless, let me remind you that in high school you most likely had the real numbers defined to you in about a minute and your definition was satisfactory for just about everything a non-math major would ever do). There are physicists whose entire career consists of running computer simulations of stars colliding with black holes, essentially just to see what will happen, and then writing about it and figuring out new ways to crash celestial bodies into each other. My point is, the STEM major who takes the superior stance of utility may do useful work, but he should understand that many of his colleagues don't.

That established, I have been conflicted for some time about what sort of career I would like to follow. I have been enthusiastic about mathematics and physics from a young age and I naturally took that route in my university studies. However, I have also been exposed to a great deal of art, literature, philosophy, music, and so forth and I must say that my admiration of these great works of the humanities often draws me to consider a career in creative or persuasive writing, music, or philosophy. This, coupled with a realization of the mundanity and potential "uselessness" of physical or mathematical research, led me many times to stop and ask myself whether mine is the right major for me.

However, before I had a mid-college crisis, I had to think seriously about it. Obviously, changing one's major is not a decision to be made lightly. I was never fully convinced that I don't want to do physics or math. It's not that I dread the prospect of that option; it is simply somewhat intimidating. At the same time, I have enough natural ability in and affinity for math and physics that much of the work ahead would be quite exciting. Thus, I really had to give the decision some time. In deliberating this issue, a thought occurred that sort of established once and for all my position:

If I want to write, I can write. If I want to make music, I can make music. If I want to philosophize, I can philosophize. If I want to do physics, I need a degree.

Again, I will state that I recognize the value of studies in the humanities. I am not suggesting that I would be every bit as capable as an English major to write. However, though studying literature would help me a great deal in producing good literature, it is not a prerequisite. Creative writing is possible without a degree. On the other hand, a lack of degree in the sciences would effectively and entirely preclude a career in science (assuming no groundbreaking epiphanies on the scale and in the nature of Einstein's relativity).

Thus, my decision to stick with my major is one intended to preserve the greatest openness in future opportunities. In choosing on a physics career, I can still write, play music, study philosophy, and so forth on my own time. But in choosing a humanities career, I would be eliminating the option to do real physics research. In short, the one option allows me to create in both fields, while the other restricts me to consumption only in one, despite the ability to create in the other.

That is why I am not a humanities major.

Edit: Soon after posting this, I received a comment from an intelligent and well-spoken critic pointing out some things I overlooked in this post. Specifically, I realize that I have made it sound as though I don't think there is any need for humanities degrees. I would like to apologize to all who misinterpreted my intentions here. I would like to note a few items.

First: There are indeed many areas of the humanities that require a degree. I would never presume to attain professorship in the works of Shakespeare without a Ph. D. in Shakespeare. I would not expect to rise to first chair violin in the London Orchestra without years of practice and study of music. People in these fields have worked hard for their degrees and for their capabilities and could not be supplanted in their positions by a casual self-directed student.

Second: I have failed to describe exactly what portions of the humanities interest me. I am interested particularly in production of creative works. In this part of the humanities, there is indeed more leeway for accomplishment to those not officially trained. Not having studied it, I do not have the same advantage as would one having a degree in creative writing, but the important point I meant to make was that I could still write.

Third: I thought that I made this clear in the original post, but having reviewed it I see that I most certainly did not. I did, in choosing not to pursue a humanities degree, practically close the door to a career in creative writing, music, et cetera. I was not suggesting that I expect to be able to sit down and write a bestseller (and honestly, judging by the sorts of books that sell big these days, would I really want to end up in that crowd?). What I was trying to suggest is that my creative pursuits are satisfied without a degree. This is not intended as a general case for everyone! I personally, in writing, playing music, and so forth, achieve what I want to achieve without making a career out of it.

Fourth: On this point and on this point alone, I disagree with the aforementioned insightful critic. This person mentioned that in order to be a "writer" and not simply one who writes, you need a degree. On the contrary, I firmly believe that the title of writer (not the occupation, but the categorization) is valid for anyone who actually writes. One does not have to ski professionally to be a skier, nor be formally trained in craftsmanship to be a craftsman. I consider myself a writer, though I have no degree in writing and have never and probably will never make money from writing; I do so because I like to write and I do write on a regular basis.


  1. Thank you for re-inscribing the myth that a degree in humanities is unnecessary. Yes, you pay lip service to "the humanities give us culture" and such, but your final point (that you can write without a MFA or BA in English, etc.) undermines such surface support.

    And much of this just reveals how little you really know about work in the humanities--not all work here is creative. There is real research here, too. Research that requires a degree. And even the work that is creative, a degree goes a long way to helping you meaningfully contribute to the production of culture (just look at last year's Pulitzer Prize winner--MFA from Iowa's Writer's Workshop). In fact, if you want to be a *writer,* not just someone who writes, then you really need a degree. And that's just one example.

    I'm glad you're not in the humanities. I'm glad you're doing something you love. But please don't undercut other disciplines under the guise of "well, it's important, but you don't really need a degree to do those things."

    Perhaps, if you revisit this topic again, maybe you should emphasize that you chose not to have a career in the humanities (for which you really would need a humanities degree) and therefore decided not to get a degree in the humanities. You chose a physics/mathematics career, so you're getting a physics/mathematics degree. And that's all there is to it.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I've posted some edits above in response to your statement.

  2. Came here from Reddit, so I'll just cross-post my comment:

    I was listening to a Commissioner for Higher Education yesterday and he related an amusing anecdote. The Fed and states are clamoring for more STEM degrees/students, and businesses are too, so he went to a large employer in our state and asked them what they wanted. What is it they really need these students to do?

    The company came back with 8 pages, single-spaced, of what they wanted graduates to be able to do (and what recent graduates had been unable to do, much to the company's frustration). He read through it and then asked if they realized that an English major is what they should have been hiring all along.

    It seems like a lot of people, from Reddit to CEOs, get all RAH-RAH STEM, but forget that those degrees are for highly specialized fields. There is a great deal of demand for people who can write well, communicate clearly, think critically, research and synthesize data, and a load of other things that come with a good liberal arts education. What is even funnier (or perhaps sadder) is that the Commissioner asked a number of CEOs what their education was in, and they were all in the liberal arts as well. They want people to be able to work as hard and as well as they did, but somewhere along the way a switch flipped and they decided STEM graduates were what they needed. And when they started hiring those graduates, they started crying out that education was poor because those graduates couldn't do the type of work they wanted.

    I'm an IT manager. If my major had been in IT, I wouldn't be able to do my job nearly as well. I can learn the technology on my own, but I needed challenged to develop critical thinking skills and writing skills, and that wouldn't have happened in a STEM field.

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