Manchester University
Oak Leaves

November 18, 2016

Do Not Underestimate the Humanities

Destinee Boutwell

Sometimes “the humanities” has been the punch line of jokes. As in: “You’re studying the humanities? Don’t worry—you can always switch to business.” 

In June 2008, the New York Times published an article called “The Decline and Fall of the English Major” by Op Ed columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg.  In it, he observed that a “technical narrowness, the kind of specialization and theoretical emphasis you might find in a graduate course, has crept into the undergraduate curriculum.”
“The teaching of the humanities has fallen on hard times,” Klinkenborg continued, because undergraduates will tell you that they’re under pressure — from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large — to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs.” And the humanities may not present as direct a path to employment as accounting, education, or other majors do.

Many schools around the nation are seeing huge decreases in the number of individuals who declare themselves a humanities major. The humanities include majors such as art, music, English, religion and philosophy. Colleen Flaherty, a researcher and writer, said there has been a 40 percent decline in the number of students that declared one of the humanities as a major since 2012. 

Jessica Klemm is a senior at Manchester with a major in English and a minor in art. She said that when she came in as a freshman, there were 12 other English majors and now that she is in her Senior Seminar, there are only eight. “Either they transferred out of Manchester or they were pressured to go into business because of their parents,” said Klemm.
Many people who decide to explore the humanities feel a lot of pressure from the outside world. Kimberly Reinoehl, a Manchester alumna, majored in English during her four years as an undergraduate student. She said that she did not have outside pressure to leave the humanities but it was more of an inner pressure that the world instilled in her. “I struggled with not knowing what I wanted to do for a career and worried about how I would use my degree,” Reinoehl said. “I think that is a common worry for students who major in an area that could lead to multiple career paths that might not be clear.  I felt pressure (mostly from myself) to tack on something “practical” (like teaching) so I could get a job.  But – I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher!”

Klemm also felt pressure about her decision to go into the humanities. “I felt pressured to go into science and math, partly because my dad is a microbiologist and my mom’s an accountant,” she said. “The other part was that people kept joking that I wasn’t going to make any money. I am not an English major for the money, though.” 
English professor Dr. Jonathan Watson expressed his feelings about why students are pressured into joining the science, technology, mathematics and business world. “A lot of people emphasize the paycheck more than the process,” Watson said. He continued by quoting one of his former colleagues who was once an art professor at Manchester. “If you love what you do and you’re talented at it, someone is going to pay you to do it,” Watson said. 

Just recently, IPFW dropped its French and gender studies programs because they didn’t have enough students enrolling in those classes. According to former Manchester president Jo Young Switzer, the enrollment of students in the humanities classes has not seen a noticeable decrease. “I served as academic vice president and then president for 20 years,” she said. “Before that, I taught for five years in the humanities division. In all those years before I retired in June 2004, I did not notice a diminishment of humanities. The numbers of humanities graduates had remained steady over the years.” 

She stated that this is because Manchester is a liberal arts school that stresses the importance of having well-rounded students, who will become well-rounded employees and citizens. “Some people do not understand or value the ‘core’ nature of the liberal arts,” Switzer said.  “And those who have not studied at schools like Manchester where interdisciplinary learning and the liberal arts are celebrated sometimes may not realize their importance.”

People at Manchester agree that the humanities should not be overlooked or undervalued. “The humanities are important areas of study for everyone," Switzer said. “The study of humanities helps us grapple with ethical questions. Studying humanities enriches the ways we can be uplifted by beauty in words and in the arts. Courses in art, English, philosophy, and ethics literally ‘humanize us.

“Humanities courses provide value for students of all majors, because we are all human beings who will need to analyze our lives and the messages we receive from the media,” she continued. “Humanities study prepares us to do that.”

Reinoehl agreed with Switzer. “The humanities are very important to study so we can be well-rounded and have strong communication skills," she said. “Employers want employees who can reason, think critically, solve problems and express themselves well.” 
Watson agreed, and also thinks that the humanities are about enriching your life beyond your professional career. “The humanities let you grow in the company of these amazing historical voices and stories, and allow you to explore your creativity and imagination," he said. “People need to explore and find themselves and the humanities are a great place to do that.”

Contrary to popular opinion, the humanities is not a waste of money. The skills that you can accumulate as an English, art, foreign language or social science major can launch you into any career you put your mind to. “The path of our majors are really cool to hear because they don’t always fall on track right away, but a lot of them end up in really exciting fields like digital storytelling or sports writing,” he said. “We have librarians, filmmakers, and Harvard educated lawyers.” 

The skills that the humanities teach you can land you anywhere. Kimberly Reinoehl was an English major and is now the assistant director of Admissions at Manchester. Jo Young Switzer was an English major and then became the president of Manchester University. Professor Tim Ogden has an undergraduate degree in English and now he is the dean of Manchester’s College of Business. 

Rather than limiting students, the humanities gives students many options. And by developing the skills offered by the humanities, students just may find themselves more employable than if they'd followed a narrower, more predictable academic path.