Humanities students finding their way in the world

My second year of university began with one of the most disconcerting phone conversations I’ve ever had with my parents. Huddled in the corner of my barely-unpacked bedroom in a strange city, I faced two hysterical voices, each asking the same thing: “What are you doing with your life? And my money?”

These are questions that any student pursuing a degree in the humanities has likely had to answer at some point during their post-secondary career. They usually stem from the emerging viewpoint of university as a one-stop-shop for knowledge that must be absorbed within the allotted time it takes to earn a degree. This runs counter to the traditional function of a liberal arts education, which gives students the tools to learn, understand and synthesize information.

The growing push for skills training in higher education has been criticized by some as a ploy by employers to get students to pay for training through the higher education system that, in the past, workplaces would have provided upon hiring. This trend reflects a new reality in which employers are afraid to invest in university graduates — a significantly exacerbated problem for students of the liberal arts. This is the root of the issue many STEM program advocates have with the humanities: while all university degrees are an investment in an individual’s potential, the prospective return for employers in hiring individuals trained with tangible skills is much less murky than trying to quantify the value of the soft skills taught in the humanities.

This, then, is the most essential task of the liberal-arts graduate: to articulate  the value of their skills to employers — the failure to do so leading to the struggle many graduates have in securing meaningful employment.

The liberal arts are increasingly viewed as selfish, superfluous decorations on the foundation built by skilled trades. Humanities students have been taught to do two things: to read a text, and to produce an argument. The humanities are only a selfish discipline if its graduates do not use the skills and knowledge that they have acquired to create tangible products that benefit society. This is what the most successful among us do; they create public policy for government, curricula for schools, and books that add to the canon of available human intellect. As degenerative as it may seem, liberal arts graduates need to make their case for their place in society, and they do this by creating things that are of benefit to the wider world and the employers looking to hire them.

I do not make this case by insisting that while a liberal arts education lasts a lifetime, technical skills will be out of date in 10 years and those trained in them will be reduced to an intellectual square one when this happens, for this is simply not true. Knowledge does not expire; just like the liberal arts student, technical tradesmen are always learning too. They start with a solid practical foundation that can be updated with certifications and additional credentials to suit the times, while the critique that most liberal arts students must face  is that their education does not provide this sort of foundation.

I do not make this case by justifying my education, as Mark Edmundson of The Chronicle Review does — a solitary pursuit in which the liberal arts student uses her education “to try to figure out how to live … to major, quite simply, in becoming a person.” This image of a self-absorbed student who views education as a personal gift, beholden to no one, is a stain on the inherent capacities of the humanities to enable anyone and everyone to lead a more informed, enjoyable life. It is not simply learning for learning’s sake, but learning for the sake of enabling others to learn as well.

As David Wong so succinctly put: “If you want to know why society seems to shun you, or why you seem to get no respect, it’s because society is full of people who need things… People have needs and thus assign value to the people who meet them.”

That humanities graduates are capable and intelligent members of society is not in question; it is their place in society that is. It is our job to prove the value of the liberal arts to the wider world — through our tangible application of the skills of creation we learned in university — by making accessible, understandable, and enjoyable the information that empowers all humans as informed participants of a democratic society.


Cassandra Mazza is a second-year student from Victoria University studying English.

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