Posted in: Campus

The Case in Defense of the Humanities

By | February 14, 2015

businessmanIn 2010, only seven percent of college graduates nationally majored in the humanities, down from 14 percent in 1966. Colleges throughout the United States are currently experiencing a shift in emphasis from the humanities to more pre-professional areas of study, which are widely viewed as stepping stones to lucrative careers. Economics, for example, often leads to jobs on Wall Street or in consulting. However, even though students are increasingly choosing non-humanities majors in college in order to ensure economic stability and career flexibility, the humanities offer similar practical advantages, although sometimes in a less noticeable way.

The Practical Appeal of Consulting and Finance

Students are pursuing more practical and vocational studies in college because they think it will increase their chances of securing a high-paying job after graduation—something that has become difficult in the current economic climate. Economics majors earn more, on average, than majors in most other fields, and they also have lower unemployment rates than graduates of other social sciences and humanities programs. The average salary of economics or business majors is around $55,100, compared to the $38,000 for humanities majors. With the youth unemployment rate hovering around 15 percent, the very tangible rewards of studying fields like economics in college seem very alluring. 

However, it is too simplistic to say that most students are choosing non-humanities majors solely in hopes of securing a well-paying job. Many other practical factors play into their decision-making. On-campus recruiting also contributes to the large number of elite college students who enter consulting and finance after college. These firms specifically target prestigious universities and exclusively recruit from those campuses. Therefore, while the rising incidence of students ending up in these fields can be attributed to their economic appeal, it can also be attributed, at least in part, to the ease of applying to consulting and finance firms facilitated by established campus connections. Because most other companies do not recruit on campus the same way consulting and finance firms do, many students end up unclear about their other options and are unsure where else to look. Thus, for many driven and ambitious students, consulting and finance often seems to be the logical step forward.

Furthermore, students view these fields as learning experiences that will help prepare them for other industries. The consulting industry in particular is unique in that it allows consultants to work directly on CEO-level projects with companies in other industries, ranging from pharmaceutical or technology firms to nonprofits or governmental agencies. In the process, they not only get to explore various career options, entry-level consultants also gain valuable skills about the inner workings of each industry and how to solve top-level problems within that industry—skills that will benefit them immensely if other fields they may pursue later on.

In addition, consulting and finance offer students an outlet to delay committing to one career path while also gaining necessary skills that can be applied elsewhere. After graduation, Joey J. Kim ‘15, a member of the executive board of Harvard College Consulting Group (HCCG), knows that he will be working at McKinsey and Company’s office in Chicago for two years. However, the next steps of his life are fluid and flexible. “I’m going to be dropped off at the deep end and learn to swim. After that, I know it’s going to be an adventure. I know for a fact that the toolkit I’ll receive from McKinsey will equip me to do amazing things. I’m not sure where I’m going to go, but I’m glad that consulting is my first step out of college.”

Finding Real Solutions to Real Problems

Aside from practical benefits like high pay and a low-risk way to gain new skills, consulting and finance can be appealing for a number of other reasons. Kim said he initially had no intentions of pursuing consulting. However, after discovering HCCG during his sophomore year, he became more involved in the club. “The thing that really grabbed me was that I was able to find real solutions to real problems with some of the most driven and intelligent people,” Kim explained. He describes his first case with HCCG in which he worked with a charter school that was having retention problems and helped them create financial modeling. “In the process, we had to interview students from that school, and that’s when it really struck me,” Kim said. “It struck me that the work I’m doing here is going to have a real impact on these kids. That was so rewarding.” Kim is not alone in finding genuine enjoyment and passion in doing business-related work. Juliet Bailin ’15, the president of Harvard University Women in Business (HUWIB), also feels drawn to the field out of personal interest although she admits that when she was first introduced to HUWIB at Visitas, she had minimal knowledge of business. “At the time, I didn’t really know what ‘business’ entailed—I had never heard of consulting, or private equity, or social innovation,” Juliet said. “Once I joined HUWIB, I participated in its WIBternship. By the end, I knew that I wanted to end up in the business world.”

Another reason may be the students’ intrinsic qualities. “Given that Harvard attracts incredibly ambitious high-school students—the types of kids who want these things and know how to get them—it’s no wonder so many Harvard students choose a job that will secure them,” said Tyler Dobbs ‘16, president of the Harvard Classics Club. And this phenomenon is true for ambitious and high-achieving college students everywhere, not just at Harvard. As Dobbs suggests, it may be that the students are not necessarily interested in the jobs themselves, but instead see consulting and finance as natural next steps in advancing themselves in the professional world. Furthermore, given that Harvard and its peer institutions put many driven and talented individuals in one place, many students upon graduating want to continue being surrounded by intelligent people.

Going Beyond Sound Bytes of Information

However, studying the humanities in college also does not prevent students from pursuing alternative paths in the future. Bailin does not study economics or any other field that usually leads to a career in finance. “I pursued a degree in history rather than economics or some other quantitative field because history was what I loved to learn academically,” Bailin says. Therefore, studying the humanities is not necessarily mutually exclusive with pursuing a career in consulting and finance.

In fact, many students in the humanities go on to explore other industries after graduation. According to Kathleen Coleman, a Harvard Classics professor, “We have Classics students who go on and do all kinds of things. Many are snapped up by consulting firms, and many go on to law school or business school. We are equally thrilled when students take their background in the humanities and apply them to other fields.” Studying the humanities, therefore, also allows for great flexibility in future jobs or professions. “The humanities is a broad training for so many different things,” said Professor Coleman. “The best hope of a job comes from training the mind and learning transferable skills, not learning specific sound bytes of information.” This sentiment is echoed by Josiah Blackmore, a Harvard professor of Romance Languages and Literatures who told the HPR that “one of the most attractive aspects of doing a liberal arts education, as opposed to a vocational education is the extension to pretty much any discipline or career path you choose,” Professor Blackmore said. “If you want to be a banker or lawyer or doctor or shop owner or politician or teacher or scholar, the humanities prepares you for all of that.”

Studying the humanities in college can also give people skills that can be easily transferable to a variety of professional opportunities. “Studying the Classics has provided me with a rigorous training in close reading and analysis of texts—not to mention writing—that will serve me well in my professional life,” said Dobbs. “These skills are necessary for the jobs that most college graduates are seeking.” However, the humanities also provide individuals with skills that are perhaps less obviously practical, but equally important for ambitious students who want to make a difference in the world. According to Dobbs, the humanities “imbue those who study it in the history, literature, and philosophy that form the basis of Western culture. What could be a more practical field of study for someone aspiring to be a leader in the Western world?”

Image credit: Wikicommons

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