Is it Worth it to Study Humanities?

Federico Ast
Oct 14, 2015 · 4 min read
The School of Athens, painted by Raphael between 1509 and 1511. One of the most famous frescoes of the Renaissance.

Some time ago I had a discussion with a friend about career paths. He was saying: “Only an idiot would major in the humanities nowadays. If you’re going to college major in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM). But why go to college when you can take short courses in Coursera and develop skills in high demand?

Skills in high demand”… What’s that?

In the late 90s, when I had to decide what to study, the major in high demand seemed economics. So that’s what I studied, maybe hoping to have a career in an international consulting firm. But when I graduated in 2004, nobody would hire economists.

In 2000, I started a major in philosophy. I didn’t really see it as a career. It was more like a hobby. In high school, I liked reading on topics that seemed to fit into the category of philosophy in my unprepared mind.

While I am no career counselor, I can speak of my experience of majoring in a field “in high demand” and also in a field that many see as a road to poverty.

Being educated is always better than the opposite. But I always advise young people to be skeptical of projections such as “by 2020, there will be a shortage of X million engineers”. Estimations are made by extrapolating past trends, without taking into account disruptive technological changes.

When choosing a career, don’t forget that many of today’s jobs didn’t even exist a decade ago. NOBODY knows what the job market will look like in X years. NOBODY.

Take for instance oil engineers. They had big paychecks for a long time. Now, outlook isn’t so good. Oil prices plummeted and caused massive layoffs. As I see many young people enrolling in STEM majors, seemingly in high demand, I wonder how can they be sure if demand will still be there when they graduate. Are computer programming students aware that advances in artificial intelligence may replace coders?

(To those who still live under the illusion that they can predict the future, as always, I recommend Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan).

In this context, humanities or liberal arts career may be like a contrarian bet. The skillset of philosophers (the part of the humanities I am familiar with) is likely to become scarcer in the future. Skills include writing, critical thinking and a cross-discipline perspective, which are extremely useful for business and extremely hard for artificial intelligence to master, at least in the short run.

As an MIT professor once said:

“Here, everybody can solve differential equations. But they can’t write a paragraph to explain how they do it”.

Many of the most creative people in Silicon Valley were educated in the humanities (not necessarily in the university). Steve Jobs saw himself more as a humanities person than a businessman; Carly Fiorina majored in philosophy and medieval history; PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel studied philosophy at Stanford (although Thiel himself is famous for discouraging people from studying humanities); Erel Margalit majored in philosophy, logic and English literature in Jerusalem and then did a Ph.D. in philosophy at Columbia. Then he went on to create the largest VC in Israel. A third of Fortune 500 CEOs were trained in the humanities.

Having been on both sides of the counter, I can tell that the skills of the humanities ARE business skills. There isn’t much difference between analyzing an argument and a business plan. Both activities are about testing assumptions and developing hypotheses.

So, my philosopher friends, don’t be discouraged. You possess a scarce skillset which is likely to remain relevant in years to come. You just need to figure out where it can be more productive for others. It isn’t necessarily in academia. Should you take a business course? Start a company?

Georgia Nugent, an HR expert, says:

“It’s a horrible irony that at the very moment the world has become more complex, we’re encouraging our young people to be highly specialized in one task. We are doing a disservice to young people by telling them that life is a straight path. The liberal arts are still relevant because they prepare students to be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances”.

My advice to young people facing the decision of what to major in, just study whatever you think suits better your nature. Don’t go for a STEM degree just because it seems in “high demand”. You never know if demand will still be there by the time you graduate.

Just some food for thought, two books. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Robert Greene’s Mastery. Both books analyze the career paths of many people, with some surprising findings.

Federico Ast

Written by

Ph.D. Entrepreneur. Blockchain & Law. Singularity University GSP16. TEDx Speaker. Coursera Teacher on Blockchain. Founder of Kleros.io.

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