Why the Humanities Matter

by Sally Jamrog

Opinion

December 14, 2020
The Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, The Iliad, and The Norton Book of Classical Literature are among the texts read in BUA’s freshman English and history courses. Luke Hargrave for The Scarlet Letter

In a world where the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are increasingly overshadowing the humanities, some wonder whether humanities degrees are worth pursuing anymore. Our society is rapidly improving because of advances in science and technology, and consequently, it can be difficult to realize the importance of studying literature and history. In the United States, colleges have been facing steep declines in humanities majors, a phenomenon historians are labeling the “humanities crisis.” Though only recently getting the attention it deserves, the humanities crisis has been ongoing for fifty years: it began in the 1970s, when the dropping of enrollments in humanities curricula began to become noticeable.1

With college tuition prices rising annually, students today are often saddled with massive debt upon graduating and therefore face increased pressure to pursue a course of study that will ensure a lucrative job — this has become synonymous with pursuing a degree in STEM. The number of history majors has dropped 33% since 2011, while English, religion, and language majors have been in steady decline since the financial crisis in 2008.2 Students worry that a job procured from a humanities degree would not have a salary high enough to make a living and pay off college debt. A STEM degree seems to hold a more secure promise of a high-paying job. These beliefs could result from a misconception that the only career prospects for humanities students lie in academia. Teachers truly shape the future of our society by providing education for generations of students, but they are paid relatively little in comparison to other professions that require a college degree. Yet we see that some of the most financially successful people today do come from a humanities background: a survey done in 2012 found that of the 652 American CEOs and heads of product engineering who participated, almost 60% held degrees in the humanities.3 And there is not a lack of jobs that rely on skills cultivated by studying the humanities either. The critical and logical thinking developed by a humanities education has a multitude of applications, from partaking in activities in daily life to explaining data from a lab. The World Economic Forum states that some of the most sought-after skills in the career market are active listening, speaking, critical thinking, and reading comprehension, all skills that are developed through our studying the humanities.4

Surely, STEM is important to the development of the world around us. But humanities carry an equal, not lesser importance, simply because many of the challenges that humans face are multifaceted. “The big problems we face as a species and as a country, all of which are man-made, require interdisciplinary solutions,” says classics and history teacher Dr. Alonge. “Thanks to science we now have at least three COVID-19 vaccines, but understanding our catastrophically poor national response to the pandemic is a humanities question.” 

As apparent from the word, the term “humanities” describes the study of human beings and their  culture. It derives from how we think about human nature and self-expression.5 Without the humanities, we as humans would forget who we are. “It’s really the original question, or litany of questions: who am I? What makes me who I am? And then, by extension, who are you? What makes you who you are?” says English teacher Dr. Formichelli. The humanities are essential to understanding ourselves as a species and figuring out who we are as individuals. By studying the humanities, we create opportunities to empathize with each other; we find out what makes others who they are and how we can relate to them. “It is in humanities courses that students get a chance to explore the fundamental questions of human existence,” says Mr. Kolovos. “An education without that kind of exploration misses the mark, and our society would be worse off for it.” Without the humanities, we would lose our connection to the past and knowledge of past happenings that have made us who we are today. Just as a scientist would not dispose of knowledge from previous experiments, humans should look back to past advancements in the humanities in order to improve ourselves as a species and as a society.

With the humanities, we can recognize and address familiar patterns in human nature. “I am often reminded of a quote by Mark Twain that goes, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,’” says Amelia Boudreau ‘23. “Studying humanities proves unceasingly that that quote rings true.” Fellow BUA students might recall reading The Divine Comedy in sophomore history, a poem in which Dante Alighieri diagnoses and prescribes solutions to the problematic “rule” of the papacy during his time. Although Alighieri wrote during the early fourteenth century, the problems he grapples with in his text are similar to the problems politicians and citizens are facing today: the same insatiable greed for power and authority that Dante describes as strangling the church in his time can be spotted within modern governments and responses to issues such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. It is in learning and thinking about past tendencies of human nature that we can fully understand and move forward in solving the problems of our present world.

We currently live in a society where misinformation and propaganda exist in abundance: because the modern world revolves around technology, people are continually bombarded with information by means of social media, advertisement campaigns, and news from around the world. In this whirlwind of facts and figures, we can not always rely on what we see online or what we read in the paper anymore. It becomes harder to discern fact from opinion. Hence, it is essential in this modern world to be able to think independently, to be able to sift through many sources of information and finally form one’s own opinion. Reading and analyzing literature and history teaches us to question — to question information, to take famous works off of pedestals and question their authors. Independent thinking is a mark of individuality; without this capability, we lose what makes us ourselves.

Humans write to spread ideas: to refer to a previous example, Dante wrote The Divine Comedy during his exile to spread awareness among the common populace. Amelia Boudreau ‘23 says, “Writing is one of humanity’s few mediums of untethered expression. It’s critical to study writing and literature, as it can teach us the obvious, how to express ourselves, as well as the less obvious, how to understand the behaviors and nuances of those around us.” We read to become exposed to new perspectives. Writing is then a medium through which we can express our ideas. And it is particularly effective for reaching a broader audience — this is of note, considering the nearly eight billion people inhabiting our world today. Most humanities curricula teach some form of analytical writing; that may comprise analyzing a historical document or a form of literature. It is through this practice of analytical writing that humans can communicate their ideas effectively and share them with a greater community. 

Thus, although some argue that the study of the humanities has limited relevance in modern education, where the push to study STEM is gaining more and more momentum, it is crucial that we do not forget the many ways in which the humanities matter and will continue to benefit humans as individuals and as a species. Alyssa Ahn ‘23 says, “As people, we need to have a fundamental understanding of what it means to be human… so that we can create a better future.” Studying the humanities has never ceased to be important; human beings will always benefit from the knowledge of people who have come before them. In the words of Dr. Alonge, “Empathy, communication, justice, beauty — as long as these things matter, the humanities will matter.”


1 Heidi Tworek, “The Real Reason the Humanities are ‘in Crisis,’” The Atlantic, December 18, 2013,
https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/the-real-reason-the-humanities-are-in-crisis/282441/.

2 Beth McMurtie, “Can you get students interested in the humanities again?” University World News, November 9, 2019,
https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20191109053633715#:~:text=Across%20America%2C%20humanities%20majors%20have,a%2033%25%20drop%20in%20majors.&text=According%20to%20surveys%20by%20the,%2D14%20to%202016%2D17.

3 Lindsay Thomas, “Infographics Friday: Bachelor of Arts Degrees, 1988-2008,” 4Humanities, October 26, 2012,
4humanities.org/infographic.

4 Anna Moro, “The humanities are becoming more important. Here’s why.” World Economic Forum, June 14, 2018,
https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/06/how-a-humanities-degree-will-serve-you-in-a-disruptive-economy.

5 The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “Humanities,” Britannica, July 20, 1998,
https://www.britannica.com/topic/humanities.

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