Rethinking the Humanities

The day I questioned my English major happened before I even applied for college. I had been speaking with my AP United States History teacher about a letter of recommendation.

“So, what are you planning on majoring in?” he asked, leaning back in his chair.

“English,” I said confidently.

He grimaced. “Not a lot of money in that,” he folded his hands on desk. “What about economics?”

I blinked. “I like English though. It’s been my favorite class since I was a kid.”

He shrugged. I panicked.

Majoring in the humanities has been under harsh criticism for decades. Insisting on its impracticality, many feel as though students are better off majoring in business or STEM. As a student at Boston College, I often felt insecure about my choice to major in English. Students attending the prestigious business school CSOM often face many pressures. Their search for success is very visible on BC’s campus, often resulting in non-CSOM students to feel inferior to their peers.

It’s easy to recognize the corporate obsession on campus. Students in suits push through the busy quads in the middle of the day, dressed up for marketing or finance projects. Last month, a friend in CSOM frantically texted all of our friends, desperate for Bandaids for her blistered feet in high heels for a networking event. Advertisements are strewn everywhere for job fairs, networking events, and interview practice. On days with job fairs, campus is filled with a palpable buzz. It seems crystal clear that, as BC students, securing a profitable career should be our main priority.

Many students have detected this environment of job competition. As students outside of CSOM, particularly humanities majors, it’s difficult to feel quite as ambitious as our business peers. Sally Philbin, a junior communications major at Boston College, said she noticed “a general consensus that the CSOM students are superior to MCAS students in terms of intelligence, because ‘CSOM is the hardest BC school to get into.’” This speaks to the stressful college application process that happens in high school, which can sometimes turn sourly competitive by comparing statistics of different schools. With the knowledge of CSOM as the most difficult school to get into, the egos of the business school students inflate, while those of MCAS students deflate — all before enrolling in the school.

Furthermore, all BC students understand the future financial success of CSOM students. “Humanities majors are typically associated with either low paying jobs,” Cassie McCarthy, an MCAS junior said, “whereas CSOM students tend to make more money, which seems very important to a lot of people at this school.” Because of this obvious future wealth of CSOM students, majoring in business seems to be the most sensible option. Lori Harrison-Kahan, an English professor at BC, noticed that her students often feel pressure to avoid majoring in English. She explained that they often “face resistance from their parents who think they need to major in something more practical to succeed.” This idea of practicality stems from the perception that attending college should be purely for the sake of financial security.

I was inspired to defend the humanities major when I decided to take a CSOM class. In an attempt to step out of my comfort zone, I enrolled in Organizational Behavior. Surrounded by finance, marketing, and accounting majors, I felt like a fish out of water. In attempt to break the ice, our well-meaning professor asked us to introduce ourselves and name our favorite organization. Nearly everyone named corporate companies. “Deloitte” and “Goldman Sachs” were mentioned a handful of times. When it was my turn, I sheepishly said, “Whole Foods”. I was not accustomed to the classroom atmosphere. It felt almost cutthroat. Students would answer discussion questions as if they were obvious, speaking as though the class was wasting their time. Everyone was vocal about their long-term agendas, as if seeking to prove something to all other participants in the class.

The unusually high stress levels of these students were apparent. The students would enter class, frantic about interviews and networking events. Everyone rushed in and rushed out, clutching study guides and returned assignments. One student who sat behind me would always update me on her anxieties about summer internships. She waited week by week as more BC students received offers from investment banks. I tried to explain to her that, as a CSOM student at BC, it would be very difficult for her to be unsuccessful. But for her, it wasn’t about the fear of failure, it was the fear of not being the best.

This class began to increasingly infiltrate my thoughts. As they ambitiously sought out interviews and constantly networked, I began to worry that I, too, should be doing these things. Furthermore, I, too, should be nervous about them. I started to feel a sense of displacement on my own campus. I noticed more and more bustling CSOM students, more and more networking events, and more and more anxiety. I felt self-conscious about my own major, as if by declaring this major, I had done myself an injustice.

One day at the library, I turned to my friend in CSOM. I sighed, “I have a paper to write.” He looked at me incredulously and scoffed, “But I have an investments management project.” I quickly quieted, stifling my complaints for the rest of the afternoon. However, as the afternoon wore on, I recognized my hard work — and that my work was hard. I was writing about the way Toni Morrison approached slavery through an original narrative in her novel Beloved. It was convoluted and heartbreaking to write, and I consider it important. It was in that moment that I recognized that there was a discrepancy here — CSOM students don’t know what I do in my classes, and thus they can’t recognize its significance.

It’s worth considering why students chose to major in the humanities, and why they value it. “If I were going to school just to make a lot of money, I wouldn’t need to spend $250,000 to go to a glorified trade school,” said a student double majoring in English and Theology who asked to remain unnamed. “BC is a luxury, no matter how you slice it. I’d rather have my luxury be something that I love, than something that will give me a return on my investment.” Reframing education in these terms allows us to consider the authentic reasons for attending college.

Cassie McCarthy described that she felt that “going to school is about getting an education, not about learning how to work.” This allows us to consider education as an accumulation of knowledge, rather than preparation for a career. In an article titled “Holding On to What Makes Us Human”, LD Burnett explains the origins of this career-oriented purpose of higher ed. He notes, “Policy makers and the public view the purpose of college as purely vocational, and see humanistic inquiry — the study of literature, the arts, history, anthropology, philosophy — as a waste of time and money.” This emphasizes the idea of capitalizing on time. If spending your time in a certain way won’t result in making money, it’s not worth doing. A New York Times article noted, “the particular focus on jobs and earnings — originally limited to vocational programs and community colleges — is gaining momentum.”

With the overbearing pressures CSOM students face alongside many of their competitive natures, it’s easy to overlook the effort BC administration puts into the humanities. Despite the many resources allocated to CSOM, BC clearly values the humanities, especially in comparison with other universities. Lori Harrison-Kahan noted that she is reminded of BC’s commitment to the humanities every day when she enters her office in Stokes Hall, a multi-million dollar project constructed in 2013 to house many humanities departments. “Stokes is a public symbol of the investment that BC has made in the humanities,” she asserted. Stokes hall demonstrates BC’s willingness to promote the humanities, rather than treat it as a throwaway.

Understanding what is taught during humanities classes facilitates its appreciation. Often, a focus arises on a particular societal issue: racism, sexism, war, marginalizing groups. I currently take an English class at BC called Contemporary American Women Writers. While our priority is reading novels and short stories, we often integrate the real world issues that these works illustrate. Every class, a student delivers a presentation about a particular cultural critique. They include topics such as domestic abuse, conceptions of female beauty, and women in slavery. These presentations function to supplement the texts we analytically read and discuss. Incorporating these pressing questions about the world around us forces us to confront and discuss them. This leads to impassioned debate, personal anecdotes, and even a few tears.

Speaking in purely practical terms, majoring in the humanities would not result in failure. In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Norman M. Bradburn and Robert B. Townsend reassure reader that “majoring in the humanities is not a path to poverty.” In fact, 93% of employers agree that candidates’ capacity to “think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems” takes precedent over their undergraduate major. In debunking the myth of majoring in humanities leading to financial instability, students could comfortably select their major based on passion. With this in mind, we can understand the importance and worth of the humanities, particularly in today’s ever-changing culture.

Learning humanities disciplines allows students to question the world around them, and, in the future, bettering that world. An unnamed student stated, “My classes aren’t about income or taxes or how to sell meaningless product, they’re about understanding people and religion and why the world works the way it does.” Humanities classes encourage students to recognize conflicts within society. In an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, John McCumber implores the teaching of humanities as a means to promote peace. He theorizes that exclusively learning STEM disciplines may cause a student to be ignorant of pressing issues around them. “To learn what anti-Semitism and racism are, students must turn to history and sociology courses,” he states. “To learn why they are evil and how to avoid them, they must turn to the humanities.” McCumber hopes that a more widespread teaching of the humanities would result in a world of greater solidarity and tolerance. Lori Harrison-Kahan insisted, “If we’re interested in preserving what makes us fundamentally human, we also need to understand how past and present cultures document and interpret humanity in all its complexities.”

This year in particular, I faced insecurities about my major. I felt like I wasn’t properly using my time at BC because I felt as if those around me did not value what I was doing. I’d never felt more nervous to participate in a class as I did in my business class. Perhaps this was because I was out of my element, or perhaps it was because I could sense the cutthroat environment CSOM students face. However, reflecting on the classes I’ve taken at BC, I have realized how valuable they are. I’ve read works by scholars in all sorts of disciplines. I’ve attended lectures about trailblazing ideas like feminist disability studies. I feel like I am ready to enter the world, wary but armed with knowledge.

This isn’t to say that studying business is not worthwhile. Make no mistake, majoring in business brings its own type of valuable contribution to society. However, we must reconstruct our perception of education to uphold the humanities. In a world where the humanities foster, we foster. Instead of choosing a major or a job based on long-term goals, students should refocus their decisions on present-day joys. If students reorient themselves to purely considering what they learn in day to day, they will value their education much more. Learning is a gift. Rather than thinking twenty-five years into the future, we should savor the knowledge we build every day while at this school.