On Seismology and the Humanities

As a native Californian, I can’t help but be engrossed in the new book The Big Ones, by Dr. Lucy Jones. Jones got her undergraduate degree at Brown, where she studied Chinese language and literature (she graduated in 1976, so she was ahead of her time in studying Chinese). The Big Ones is not about China, though. It’s about natural disasters.

Jones recounts events such as the great California flood of 1862, the 79 C.E. eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and the 1755 earthquake that nearly destroyed Lisbon. If this seems like an odd topic for a language scholar, it is. But it’s not odd at all for someone who got her Ph.D. in biophysics from MIT and who is, arguably, the most prominent seismologist in the world. And she is an ideal illustration of the value of the humanities and the gulf between majors and careers.

As every current high school student knows, “STEM” — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — has captured the academic imagination in the past few years, in part because those fields relate directly to one of the great economic success stories of our time: the meteoric rise of the tech industry, from hardware to software to networking to mobile apps.

Though I object to the simplistic label “STEM” these fields of study and their corresponding careers have rightfully inspired today’s high school kids. I was pleased to support many aspiring scientists and engineers this year, as I have every year previously. They may go on to work on innovations that previous generations could hardly have imagined. Several of my students this year want to study artificial intelligence, which is clearly one of the most exciting branches of computer science. Their labors will result, directly and indirectly, in profound shifts in the economy and in employment.

Ironically, these shifts may decrease demand for certain STEM professionals. Artificial intelligence may take over many technical tasks — including many elements of computer programming. Recent books like You Can Do Anything, by my friend George Anders, and recent studies like this one suggest that STEM students hardly have a monopoly on good jobs.

Many of today’s best entry-level jobs didn’t exist five years ago; neither did many of today’s most exciting companies. Five years from now, who knows who will be hiring and for what. Students who major in the humanities, arts, and social sciences can be just as successful as those who major in STEM — and they often develop their own conceptions of success (other than their salaries). And, as Lucy Jones demonstrates, a college major doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with anyone’s graduate studies or career.

I write not to diminish the importance of STEM or to dissuade anyone from thinking about studying STEM. It’s just that no one academic discipline is inherently more interesting, more fun, or more professionally valuable than any other. Unfortunately, the humanities — history, English, philosophy, art history, languages, religion, etc. — have taken a beating in recent years. On college campuses, almost any mention of “the humanities” comes with the appendage “crisis of.” Enrollment in humanities majors has declined, and many universities assume that the decline is irrevocable in light of the primacy of tech, engineering, business, and other pre-professional disciplines. (Social sciences — economics, sociology, anthropology, and political science — seem to be holding steady.)

I suggest that students’ reluctance to study in the humanities (or their parents’ reluctance to let them) is misguided, and borne more from lack of imagination than from lack of relevance or career opportunities. Aside from being super-fun for anyone who loves stories, analysis, and culture, the humanities offer unique, rich insights into the world. They encourage different modes of thinking. They foster communication skills. They spark creativity. They might even hold the key to figuring out how all of us can get along on this small, unsteady planet.

As UCLA Professor John McCumber wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “highly quantified disciplines…cannot teach about things like racial or religious prejudice. To learn what anti-Semitism and racism are, students must turn to history and sociology courses. To learn why they are evil and how to avoid them, they must turn to the humanities.”

(To elaborate on McCumber’s perspective and further illustrate the value of studying history, here’s a profound, if harrowing, discussion of Hitler’s rise to power in The New Yorker. Here’s a less harrowing discussion of how history can influence our conception of neighborliness. Finally, if ever you needed an example of how academic disciplines can complement each other, here’s an article about the use of ice core samples from Greenland to estimate the consumption of lead and overall economic health of the Roman Empire.)

Humanities majors also happen to earn decent money, whether in Roman denarii or U.S. dollars. As this article explains, the long-term salaries of humanities graduates tend to converge with those of students who studied in other disciplines. Many humanities majors take low-paying jobs right out of college because they choose those jobs, not because they can’t get jobs that pay better. Here’s a blog I wrote a few years ago on the relationship between employment and the humanities.

The sciences, the engineering disciplines, and vocational subjects can all be great fields (though I am skeptical of undergraduate business). I’m writing this because conventional wisdom does not look kindly upon the humanities — and conventional wisdom demands scrutiny. For students who might genuinely want to study in the humanities but who are facing social or economic pressure not to, I am trying to level the playing field. Success depends far more on ambition, effort, native intelligence, and awareness than on specific bodies of knowledge learned at age 20.

Lucy Jones isn’t successful just because she understands plate tectonics as well as anyone else in the world. She’s successful also because she’s a broad thinker and an excellent communicator. She argues, convincingly, that disasters are more than just geological phenomena — their effects depend on public perception, governmental action, and cultural norms, among many other factors. She knows how to translate statistics that reveal the dangers of natural disasters into speeches and writing that can resonate with everyday readers and, importantly, with government officials.

I am certain she owes her writing and speaking to the knowledge she gained back before she traded literature for seismographs. Believe it or not, her book is a fun read. Those of us who live in the path of danger may ultimately be safer for it.

And, I would argue, everyone is better off when students feel free to study what they love — and then do what they love.