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The employability myth of the humanities

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Associate Editor, Weekender

MARCH 07, 2014

The boilerplate defense of the humanities starts something like this: “Although majors in the fields of science and engineering may be more lucrative today than, say, a comparative literature degree, the critical thinking and analysis skills developed in the course of acquiring the literature degrees are equally meritorious.”

Another common, perhaps less pompous way of making the case for history, philosophy or creative writing majors is as follows: “It doesn’t really matter what you major in at college; what’s important is where you go to school and what you want to do for a living.” Or maybe you believe that “science majors don’t really learn much about ‘thinking’ — they just study how to ‘do.’ ”

I find these arguments for preserving the humanities reasonably convincing, although I find their premise disingenuous, especially when they’re up against the claim that it’s impossible for humanities majors to get a job in today’s economy. But before we get to why these defenses are misdirected, let’s look at the data.

The fields of study that comprise the humanities collectively represent 11 percent of all undergraduate degree-seekers, down from a peak of 17 percent in 1967. This decline has led many to declare that there’s a “crisis” in the humanities, as more and more erstwhile scholars of Socrates and Aristotle instead choose to take courses (and ostensibly pursue careers) in biochemistry, physics and so on. In the post-Great Recession economy, we are told, there’s little room for deadweight English majors who don’t know how to code.

This idea of acquiring the right kind of skills and knowledge as an undergraduate in order to get a job post-graduation isn’t old, but it’s getting significant attention as part of the national conversation about our Broken Economy. If you’re to believe the 3 billion hastily assembled Yahoo articles about America’s best-paying college majors, business and science majors will forever be relatively employable; and if you major in art history, you are truly fucked. Switch to a science major, so the story goes, or else be left behind by China, or Russia, or the information economy, or whatever. In spite of the seductive simplicity and black-and-white morality of this logic, the data tell a different story entirely.

Contrary to what clickbait-y listicles using dubious statistics suggest (the Yahoo! home page has never been a great source for thoughtful journalism), wages for the large majority of recent math and science college grads actually flatlined in the 2000s (although they do remain somewhat higher on average). Furthermore, the difference in unemployment rates between STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) college grads and non-STEM college grads is insignificant — according to September 2012 data, the difference was roughly a single percentage point. Even in the long run, STEM majors aren’t really wedded to their concentrations, with a 2011 Georgetown study showing that 58 percent of undergraduate science majors end up leaving the field after 10 years.

In short, the idea that STEM majors have a vastly more secure path to steady, long-term post-college employment than other college grads is mostly bullshit. Very convincing bullshit! But bullshit all the same.

Still, if college majors aren’t a huge component of the youth jobs crisis, then how are young folks supposed to find work while facing unemployment rates for 16 to 24 year olds that are double the national average?

Part of the reason college graduates of any major are having difficulty getting steady work of any kind is because all young people (with or without a college degree) can’t find employment all that easily. This salient detail is lost on many in the business world, particularly in high tech. In 2012, Microsoft issued a 2012 report repeating many of the commonly heard mistruths about job opportunities for young Americans. Their argument (and that of Silicon Valley’s voice in Washington — the Mark Zuckerberg founded tech lobby FWD.us) is that Americans are grossly underprepared for the emerging global high-tech economy. This line of thinking actually soft-pedals today’s harsh economic reality by suggesting that careers in programming and software engineering are the best means of avoiding the unemployment trap. This, to reiterate, is bullshit. As a useful article from the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers points out, universities are actually awarding far more STEM degrees than there are opening in the STEM job market.

If you’re looking for the single biggest advantage in the youth job market, the answer is actually pretty simple, and it has nothing to do with which box you check on a major declaration form. To put it bluntly: If you want to get a job, go to college and major in whatever suits you best.

According to January’s job numbers (for those 25 and older), high school graduates with no college education face a 6.5 percent unemployment rate. For those with a college degree, the unemployment rate is 3.3 percent. If you want to double your chances of finding a job, you should go to college. And while recent college grads between the ages of 22 and 25 aren’t included in these numbers, there’s nothing to suggest these numbers, relative to one another, would be any different.

Every self-proclaimed protector of the humanities should base his or her argument on these simple figures. Attending college and earning a degree is the single biggest positive life choice one can make in order to get a job. The choice of major, although well hyped and the subject of countless passive-aggressive emails from Mom and Dad, is negligible when compared with the significance of simply earning a degree at all.

There are some important caveats to this, however. For one, it’s simply a fact of life that degrees in a pre-professional field such as engineering, business or computer science can earn substantially more for the recipient over a lifetime than, say, a rhetoric diploma. Additionally, if your goal is to climb to the top of the Fortune 500, then you should know that about a third of America’s CEOs were undergraduate engineering majors.

Nonetheless, if your primary concern is getting a job that pays a living wage, then you shouldn’t view your humanities degree as a shackle. And given that very few people ever get to be titans of industry, your undergraduate major probably won’t be what holds you back, anyway. Relatively speaking, college graduates should be fine.

A few weeks ago, President Obama joked in a speech that Americans should pursue opportunities to learn tangible, employable skills, as opposed to studying a field such as art history. Although he apologized for the remark in a handwritten letter to a University of Texas art history major, Obama’s Freudian slip spoke volumes about the misconceptions many of our nation’s leaders hold about the structure of our economy. Shortly after Obama’s miscue, Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted a condemnation of Obama’s letter to the professor. “Pathetic Obama apology to art history prof. We do need more degrees that lead to #jobs,” Rubio wrote.

Unfortunately, as the Florida Republican demonstrated, some of the people who are crafting policy ostensibly designed to help the country’s jobless know very little about why people are unemployed.

It’s true: We do, in fact, “need more degrees that lead to #jobs.” The reality, however, is that most degrees lead to jobs, regardless of their concentration. The trick is to get more people to college, not to tell them what they should study once they’re there.

Noah Kulwin is an associate editor of The Weekender. Contact him at [email protected].

MAY 07, 2018

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