Aaron Baker: Don't let the humanities die

Tuesday, February 26, 2019 - 4:23pm

My sophomore year of college, I decided to major in history instead of political science. To me, the switch from political science to history was a minor one, because I had always thought they were similar.

But that was not the perception a lot of people I knew had. Some of my friends and family seemed concerned that I was majoring in history. The impression I got from people was that political science was better than history because it was more employable, more relevant and more interesting. The concerns I encountered reflect broader trends in American higher education. These trends highlight two commonly held attacks on the humanities. One is that declaring a humanities major is asking for unemployment. And two, that the humanities are inferior and antiquated when compared to the social sciences.

Since 2007, the number of history majors in the U.S. has fallen more than 40 percent. There are even colleges that are getting rid of certain humanities subjects. Many look to the recession in 2008 to explain the dwindling interest in the humanities. Memory of the recession has made college students today deeply concerned about finding a stable job. So once in college, it makes sense that many millennials and Gen Z college students have opted out of the humanities, because in an economy often characterized as being in the midst of an information age, quantitative, data-based and technological skills seem more practical. What use is reading hundreds of pages about the French Revolution, philosophy or the modern canon when all the best jobs require quantitative skills?

This trend of favoring quantitative methods and skills is also evident within the liberal arts curriculum itself. Having spent almost four years on campus, as I alluded to earlier, it’s clear the social sciences are widely held in higher esteem than the humanities. Again, my experience seems to align with the overall trend on college campuses, as the social sciences have not experienced anywhere near the drop in enrollment the humanities have. In the information age, those who have chosen to major in a liberal arts subject are also swayed by an academic and cultural ethos that emphasizes data and quantitation.

First, the idea that humanities majors are unemployable relative to STEM or business majors is not true. In 2015, 4.3 percent of terminal bachelor’s degree holders in the humanities — meaning their highest level of education was undergrad — were unemployed, compared to 3.6 percent of all terminal bachelor’s degree holders, which is a minuscule difference. And while humanities majors do make less than business or engineering majors, many humanities majors report a high level of satisfaction with their salary and with their job. So the widely held claim that a humanities major is asking to spend years after college in a Starbucks or their parents’ basement is inaccurate and hyperbolic.

Second, the humanities can offer immense value to your college education and they are not an inferior version of the social sciences. I chose to study history because I’ve found that doing so has allowed me to think in a critical and informed way about the institutions, politics, debates and social realities that I interact with on a regular basis. Taking classes on the origins of Nazism and the Nazi’s racial ideology changed the way I thought about race and forced me to reconsider my previously colorblind mindset. It also showed me how ideologies in general work in conscious and unconscious ways.

A bevy of European history classes gave me the tools to understand the pillars of political liberalism, communism and fascism. They also taught me how liberal democracies can justify inequalities in the provision of rights that are ostensibly universal. A class on the history of media representation of Asian Americans contextualized my mom's family experience as immigrants from the Philippines. And a class on intellectual history exposed me to the influential ideas of 19th century Europe's most important thinkers, which I found relevant to political and moral questions today. These are just a few examples of the history classes I have taken that have enriched the way I think. Overall, the lens of historical analysis has forced me to reconsider a lot of the assumptions I had before starting college, leaving me happier, more open-minded and more informed. And while learning invaluable lessons and information, I’ve honed my ability to write, make an argument, analyze sources and do qualitative research.

The ability to think critically and historically about the pressing issues of our day is no less important today than it was a before the advent of the information age. STEM is obviously highly valuable and beneficial to society. We have STEM majors to thank for the fact that our scientific capabilities, from life-saving medicine to the latest technology, are greater than they have ever been. But humanity's moral progress does not match our scientific progress. The nature of the social and political problems we face are not fundamentally different from those of the past, despite the vastly improved scientific landscape we have today. It is this discrepancy, between moral and technological progress, that the humanities can offer unique succor and in which the social sciences fall short.

The social science classes I have taken have not only been interesting, but have also offered great insight into contemporary problems. However, in my experience, they tend to rely heavily on quantitation and ahistorical theories. While you can make observations about the natural world through randomized, controlled scientific experiments, making similar scientific observations and conclusions about humans is much harder. Modeling human behavior in political, social or economic contexts is hard because of human complexity. Research tells us that humans are not as rational as we once thought and that emotions and reason often converge to make decisions in our brains, challenging the validity of rational choice theory prevalent in social science theories. While the social sciences can provide insight based on studies, quantitative analysis and models, they should not be seen as conclusive given the complexity of human behavior. This is where history and the greater humanities come in, to use critical and analytical qualitative skills to understand human society and the moral and political choices we have, in ways that a quantitative analysis or predictive model cannot fully explicate.

Aaron Baker can be reached aaronbak@umich.edu.