Stop hating on liberal arts majors

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Since the Reagan era of the 1980s, we have heard arguments from various quarters lamenting the supposed “fact” that studying liberal arts or the humanities in general was a colossal waste of time. As a Generation X teenager, this message was routinely fed to me and my peers.

More than a decade later as a graduate student in the humanities, I harbored intense skepticism toward such dismissive rhetoric. Now, more decades later as a tenured professor deeply engaged in the humanities, it turns out that my skepticism was well-founded.

A 2020 article for Inc. by Jessica Stillman featured host of experts that argued liberal arts majors were making a major rebound. Those predictions were also echoed by Dan Schnabel, New York Times Best Selling Author and CEO of Millennial Branding and George Arson and Toby Russell Co-CEO’s of .

The evidence shows that many companies have come to the abrupt conclusion that a sole reliance on engineering, business and technology will not be sufficient to maintain any degree of a competitive advantage in the future. In addition, as technology evolves and becomes more complex, companies will not be able to rely on black-and-white approaches to solving problems. Instead, the ability to theorize and conceptualize will become of greater importance.

Schnabel, Arson, and Russell are not alone in espousing such commentary. Many other tech CEOs with academic backgrounds steeped in the humanities themselves are happy to testify to the usefulness of these often periodically ridiculed degrees.

The truth is that for quite some time, businesses and employers have been aggressively seeking to employ graduates who possess a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems. It goes without saying these are the sorts of skills that anyone who pursues an education in the humanities will often receive.

I will concede I was grinning like a Cheshire cat when I came across such inspiring news. I cannot tell you how many conversations I have engaged in with people of varied backgrounds who have derided what they saw as the supposed irrelevance of the humanities by those in certain academic and public sectors.

I have sparred with more than a few engineers, businesspeople, accountants, and chemists. Some have been friends, other total strangers. Most were so thoroughly convinced in the supposed supremacy of medicine, business, technology, and the hard sciences in general, that they were totally blinded by the crucial impact that liberal arts have had on the larger society.

A classic liberal arts education introduces students to art, languages, literature, history, race, and gender-based courses, philosophy, interdisciplinary courses, sciences, and other related areas of academic pluralism.

More importantly, such an education provides its recipients with the ability and vital ingredients necessary to think critically and holistically about a plethora of issues, including business, science, and technology. Salaries and income levels aside, being exposed to a multitude of subjects and deep critical inquiry is what the humanities is all about.

I cannot tell you how many students I have had in my more than two decades of being a college professor who have responded to student evaluations of my courses with comments such as “this should be a required course.” “I learned about all sides of the issue, not just the popular one.” “This class has made me see things in a totally different perspective.” “This class has made me consider switching majors.”

By no means should one dismiss the importance of science, math, technology, engineering, and other STEM related fields. Such disciplines are paramount and crucial to the continuing strengthening of our society. That being said, one does not become successful or proficient in any endeavor or any profession (and that includes STEM fields) without a good, solid grounding in critical thinking skills that a liberal arts education provides.

In short, the humanities are the cornerstone of any complete and well-rounded education. I’m just glad more people are recognizing that.

Copyright 2022 Elwood Watson, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate

Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.