By Freeha Anjum
Stanford University includes an entire page on their website dedicated to explaining why the humanities remain important. They agree that these studies allow us to “think creatively and critically, to reason, and to ask questions” and that to study human experience is to “help us understand the world we live in, and give us tools to imagine the future.” And they’re definitely not the only well-known university to say this—just ask MIT, who ensures that all of their undergraduate students take humanities courses equalling to a quarter of their total class time.
In 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in the US advocated for the return of liberal arts degrees, as they stated it is evident that these degrees lead to improved educational and career outcomes
Clearly, the humanities must have something which causes it to be so heavily pushed at these big-name universities, and you may be wondering about the specifics. Luckily for you, this article will outline skills learned in the humanities, and how they’re so important for your career!
Note: This is Part 2 of a 4-part article series titled “The Liberal Arts Matters”
1. Communication Skills
Writing is an important part of any liberal arts degree—you adopt a better vocabulary, understand proper paragraph structure and grammar, and overall learn how to best communicate your ideas using words. Though it may not immediately come to mind, these skills are pertinent to any STEM career.
For one, researchers need to know how to explain their project and findings in words that others can easily understand and follow, which means they need to have strong communication skills. This also comes in handy when large companies are trying to sell their products—they need to know what to say to catch people’s eyes and get them interested in what they’re selling. Overall, strong communication skills will get you a long way in any career, but STEM doesn’t cover this as much, which is why we need people in the liberal arts to help us out.
Amit Basu, an associate professor of Chemistry at Brown University, agrees that “Being able to communicate your science is an important part of being a scientist” as well as being able to communicate “in an audience-specific manner” which is why Brown requires at least 2 writing courses to be taken by all their students.
2. Analyzing problems
The humanities are about delving deep into problems and understanding that things aren’t always black-and-white. These studies urge you to ask questions and understand human nature—one of the most complex things in existence. Unlike scientists and engineers, who look at problems through a very different lens, liberal arts majors can help identify different ways to view issues, and make sure we aren’t confined to the limited knowledge of STEM when going about new inventions. The valuable critical thinking skills learned in the humanities are crucial to everyday problems.
Deborah Fitzgerald, a professor with a PhD in the history and sociology of science and technology from the University of Pennsylvania, talks about what she’s learned from science and engineering students she’s taught in the last 30 years, stating that the students’ “love for science is largely based on their confidence that it solves problems beyond just technical ones.” Fitzgerald believes this is a naive opinion that needs to be “shaken out a little bit” because they “need to understand that the problems they are going to encounter in the world are not going to be as tidy as the ones they encounter at MIT.”
If you pursue a liberal arts degree, it’s likely that you’re told to write about new perspectives on an issue, to view an issue from multiple lenses, or study a culture or language that was previously unknown to you. No matter the degree, most people in the liberal arts do much more creative things than those in STEM, because most of their work requires much more creativity overall.
This means people with a liberal arts degree will bring a certain pizazz to STEM careers, and employers really value someone with creative thinking. This is especially true for jobs like journalism, advertising, or teaching, where creativity is one of the best qualities you can have to be successful in the job.
The latest World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report states that humanities majors will “try out their own ideas and have the ability to come up with unusual or clever ideas about a given topic or situation,” thus showing a promising role within an unpromising future.
4. Do what machines can’t do
Everyday, new inventions to make our lives easier and more efficient are being worked on. Humans have now found ways to have machines perform surgery, drive themselves, or search things up with the sound of our voices alone. Slowly but surely, these inventions are replacing jobs in STEM.
But there are some things they just can’t do (not yet, anyway), like interpreting human emotion or predicting consequences of bringing new ideas to society—which is where humanities degrees come in. Many companies, such as Uber, have hired psychology majors to help them understand why people like or dislike their services. Similarly, engineering projects fail every year because the inventors fail to recognize how people from different backgrounds will react to their products. Overall, it can be agreed upon that as a society, we can’t focus on technology alone—we also need to be able to understand each other.
5. Preventing past mistakes
As stated by Stanford University, understanding our past will help us fix our future. Students who study medical history, for example, recognize that physicians have made many mistakes in the past, and they should be prepared to make many more. Steward Butterfield, the CEO of Slack and a history & philosophy major, states that he “learned about the ways that everyone believes something to be true […] until they realized it wasn’t.” In this way, liberal arts majors understand that we’re not always right, and that trial and error is a part of moving forward.
Overall, people and faculties from a variety of backgrounds agree that the humanities is an essential part of everyday life, including STEM professions. In an age where speed, gratification, and clear cut answers is our main goal, it’s difficult to look back on things like worldviews, culture, language, and more regarding the people around us and the world we live in. Large companies have proved, countless times, that they still need humanities majors for tasks they may have overlooked previously, and it’s no wonder why.
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