In 2014, President Obama offhandedly dismissed art history, and by extension, the humanities, as irrelevant in the job market. He wisely apologized. His remark is indicative of a widespread sentiment: The humanities are useless in a technology-driven economy. This view is wrong, and here are five reasons why.
1. Humanities majors are taught to innovate
Innovation comes from putting together ideas that have no business being together. Steve Jobs famously combined ideas from Chinese calligraphy with ideas from computer science to create Apple's aesthetics. Amazon was born by mashing together bookselling and algorithms. Sticky notes were invented when engineers at 3M screwed up trying to make a new adhesive and later realized they could use the botched result to stick pieces of paper together, and then separate them without leaving a residue. In order to innovate, you have to see how things can go together in a way nobody else has thought of.
Humanities majors are singularly equipped to do this. The basis of a humanities education is exposure to the breadth of human knowledge. From literature, philosophy, and art to social sciences, hard sciences, and mathematics, the liberal arts curriculum has exposed humanities students to ideas from wildly different fields. They are in a position to take two disparate concepts - say, ideas from evolutionary biology and ideas from economics - and make them work together. Businesses, government, and the social sector need this kind of thinking to tackle the increasingly complex problems they face.
2. People who study the humanities are the best communicators
Organizations want employees who can communicate in a way that furthers the organization's interests. For global businesses operating in multicultural societies, unambiguous cross-cultural communication with customers, colleagues, and business partners is essential for success. It is also ridiculously hard. A humanities education makes it easier.
Research has shown that reading serious fiction increases your ability to empathize with others. Those English or world literature courses humanities majors take in college make them better able to relate to people who are not like them. That means they are invaluable when their companies move into foreign markets, or they are sent to other parts of the country to rake in sales. People do business with people they like, and people will like those who can easily, and authentically, empathize with them.
Studying the humanities also hones means of expression. Someone who spent years reading the best literature our civilization has to offer, and writing cogently about it, can get an organization or cause's message across eloquently and succinctly, orally or in writing. Humanities majors who studied the best visual, kinesthetic, and musical culture on offer can craft social media campaigns with impact and style, in a way students of marketing, whose apprehension of visual culture begins with soda advertisements, simply can't.
3. Analysis is second nature for people who studied the humanities
Analysis is central to studying the humanities. Whether learning a philosopher's ethical system, the aims of a cubist artist, or the economics of Tudor England, humanities majors routinely imbibe vast amounts of information, make sense of it, and then critique what they've learned. People who have studied the humanities understand arguments, discern their strengths and weaknesses, and formulate responses. They practice looking at data and using it to craft an argument. Whether the raw data are examples of symbolism in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or consumer demographics in a potential new market, the skill is the same: Finding meaning in the data, and convincing others your interpretation is correct. This works in the seminar room and in the board room.
Studying the humanities inculcates an open mind and penchant for asking questions. These are valuable weapons against conformist thinking, and aid in the critical evaluation of new ideas. In a constantly changing economy, old thinking simply won't work. Being open to new ideas, helping generate them, and helping refine them by asking penetrating questions will make an employee valuable to his or her organization.
4. Humanities majors see the big picture
Many people see only the work in front of them. Accounts to reconcile, reports to write, widgets to sell. Leaders see the big picture. They see where the organization is headed, and what it needs to do to get there. This is the quality that separates leaders from the rest. They ask and answer the big questions.
Studying the humanities trains you to ask and attempt to answer the big questions about society, politics, life, and art. You figure out how the pieces go together. You argue about how things should be. These experiences are analogous to what goes on in the upper echelons of any organization, where arguments about how the pieces of an organization will work together, what the future of the organization should be, and what impact the organization will have play out. Someone versed in debates about the best way to organize society politically will have no problem joining a conversation about how a company should organize its operations.
5. The humanities are our moral compass
Art, literature, and philosophy are the arenas in which societies debate who they are, what is acceptable and what isn't. It is impossible to read great works of literature and not ponder moral dilemmas. Judging or pardoning characters in a work of literature exercises our moral judgment. Recent events (the sub-prime mortgage crisis, Gov. Christie's Bridge-Gate) suggest that the private and public sectors need ethical thinkers.
Humanities majors are people who have wrestled with ethical issues and know them when they see them. They are more likely to speak up when they see wrongdoing occurring, because they are free of the blinders and acceptance of the status quo that come with specializing in a vocation. Organizations would do well to hire humanities majors if they want to avoid harmful ethical lapses.
A critic of the humanities may concede that humanities majors possess these soft skills, yet assert that they simply lack the technical skills required for most jobs, i.e. understanding particular technologies, markets, or regulatory regimes. This is true, to an extent. To be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or computer scientists, you need certain knowledge and skills. These jobs are and should be closed to humanities majors unless they pursue formal education for them. However, jobs in management, sales, human resources, marketing, consulting, and many others fields do not rely on technical skills that cannot be learned on the job, despite protestations to the contrary from those who wish to aggrandize their professions. The details of any of these professions can be learned quickly if you are a fast learner, which studying the humanities helps you become.
For those of you who currently hold humanities degrees, be confident in the worth of your degree and skills. Convince employers that you have the skills they need to accomplish their goals. For those of you currently studying for a humanities degree, stay upbeat in the face of that perennial question, "So what will you do with that degree?" You have a great answer.