With the decline in the number of post-secondary students pursuing an education in the humanities, the importance of identifying the root cause of this issue is crucial if professors want to invoke newfound passion and energy for the field in their students.
Although this may be a daunting task even for those who love to philosophize over the intricacies of human meaning and purpose, we ought to consider why students in recent years have been choosing other fields of study when choosing a post-secondary stream.
To begin, the general consensus among many in the modern age is that almost all of the humanities are not seen as practical or useful fields of study. “What are you planning on doing?” is a question that I’m sure many of my peers are all too familiar with. The question, one that is typically meant as a prompt to reconsider choosing the field, indicates an all too familiar narrative that individuals pursuing an arts degree will exit university with a useless piece of paper.
This stems from the fact that, today, university is seen as a place to obtain practical job training. Students (and the people paying for their studies) want to see a direct link between obtaining a university degree and a well-paying job.
The humanities do not provide this assurance to students.
Today, universities are believed to be factories from which high school students enter and emerge four years later as employable candidates, ready to begin the well-paying jobs that await them. In other words, there exists this idea that with a “practical” degree students will be able to attain their long awaited success.
However, universities should be an opportunity for people to learn and grow on an individual level. They should be places where students go to grapple with ideas, learn about history, art and politics, and debate in an academic setting. The humanities force students to seek out information, think critically, and contend with difficult questions. Monetary success and job opportunities should be understood as by-products of the university experience, not their explicit objectives.
Unfortunately, we cannot escape the fact that we need to be able to have something to show for after completing our programs, but why isn’t it understood that, empirically, students in the humanities and social sciences have more career stability, and many employers value soft skills over technical knowledge.
Although I recognize that the ability to state on a resume that one possesses a degree in whichever field holds a lot of weight, is that all that one should be looking to reap from university? When leaving university, people should be able to say that they actually learned something about the world that they live in, that they have ideas on how to make it a better place, and that they have obtained a greater understanding of themselves.
Critics would argue that the humanities are too ambiguous a field to be able to apply the skills or lessons learnt to a specific career. This lack of direct path may be understood as a vice, but for many it can be seen as a great virtue. Within a world where many people will change jobs more than 10 times before they retire, soft skills that can be applied in different ways are critical to success. It is imperative that these skills are developed and that students know how to effectively apply them. This is something that the humanities offer.
Ultimately, as I understand it, this conversation begins to point toward a larger issue that is present within society: how we define success. For many, monetary success appears to be an easy indicator. I, however, would argue that knowledge is wealth.