The Humanities Studies Debate

In the 21st century economy, does a humanities major still make sense for college students?  We hear the arguments.



It’s almost school time again, and the great humanities debate rolls on.  Should American colleges and college students throw their resources, their minds, their futures, into the ancient pillars of learning – philosophy, language, literature, history, the arts.  Or are those somehow less relevant, less urgent studies today in a hyper-competitive global economy?

Defenders of the humanities say this is the very foundation of human insight.  To study, as Socrates said, “the way one should live.”  Critics say:  “Crunch some numbers.  Get a job.”

This hour, On Point:  the great humanities debate.

– Tom Ashbrook


Ed Conard, author of the Washington Post essay “We Don’t Need More Humanities Majors.” Author of “Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy is Wrong.” (@edwardconard)

Mark Edmundson, author of the Washington Post essay”Why major in humanities? Not just for a good job — for a good life.” Professor of English at the University of Virginia. Author of “Why Teach: In Defense of a Real Education.”

Max Nisen, strategy reporter for Business Inside. Author of the piece “11 Reasons to Ignore the Haters and Major in the Humanities.”

From Tom’s Reading List

The Washington Post: We Don’t Need More Humanities Majors — “It’s no secret that innovation grows America’s economy. But that growth is constrained in two ways. It is constrained by the amount of properly trained talent, which is needed to produce innovation. And it is constrained by this talent’s willingness to take the entrepreneurial risks critical to commercializing innovation. Given those constraints, it is hard to believe humanities degree programs are the best way to train America’s most talented students.”

The Washington Post: Why major in humanities? Not just for a good job — for a good life — “Humanities professors have come up with a seemingly foolproof defense against those who trash degrees in, say, English literature or philosophy as wasted tuition dollars, one-way tickets to unemployment. Oh no, we say — the humanities prepare students to succeed in the working world just as well as all those alleged practical majors, maybe even better.”

Business Insider: 11 Reasons to Ignore the Haters and Major in the Humanities — “If you look at a chart of post-graduate salaries, the liberal arts don’t look very appealing. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. If you study and set out to find a job in a narrow academic area, you’re going to have a hard time. But if you’re smart about it and do something like what Logitech CEO Bracken Darrell suggests and supplement the major with in-demand skills, you’re a member of an ‘endangered species’ who can think and write well, and for whom there’s a surprising amount of demand.”

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