Undergraduates in the literature courses I teach often ask whether they are crazy for wanting to major in the liberal arts. Even the most indulgent parents sometimes nudge their children toward math, engineering or natural sciences. Every liberal arts major knows the routine. An old family friend asks what major you have chosen. You say philosophy or literature. They stare or frown and ask, “What are you going to do with that? Why don’t you study something useful?”
Joblessness is rampant, and with politicians mostly bungling the economic recovery, undergraduates may have a tough time convincing parents that they know what they’re doing when they choose a field that opens up to fewer or lower-paying opportunities.
Skepticism of humanities degrees is not new, but the financial crisis seems to have caused a serious shift. The number of undergraduates enrolled in liberal arts programs at UT remained stable or rose from 2005-8, but from 2008-11 it fell by a sharp 19 percent. In those three years, undergraduates in natural sciences grew by 7 percent, according to UT’s statistical handbook. And natural sciences overtook liberal arts in 2011 in absolute terms and as a share of total undergraduates. We’ll have to wait to see whether 2012-13 statistics confirm these trends. But anecdotally, I’ve noticed an increase in student anxiety about majoring in English literature, which applies to other liberal arts as well. Here’s what I tell my students:
First, a bachelor’s degree is important but does not determine what you will do or who you will be. Experience has a way of blasting school-derived notions. Majoring in religious studies may not prevent you from deciding later that you want to be a nurse or accountant. Similarly, majoring in engineering won’t prevent you from becoming a poet. Bear in mind, however, that it is probably easier to switch from a technical or scientific background to an artistic or humanistic career than vice versa.
Second, when you decide you want to major in the liberal arts, know that you must work hard and take it seriously. These subjects differ from the sciences in allowing extravagant freedom of inquiry and expression, subjectivity and imagination. But this freedom, with lack of discipline, can degenerate into wasting time. If you sit and read books aimlessly and passively, you may be indulging a noble hobby but you are probably not gaining new capabilities. It is not always enough to be imaginative or knowledgeable. You must also be productive; you must put your ideas into practice.
As you read in your subject, think of the ideas as raw material for something you want to create. Find the craft that lies at the core of your field, be it writing, digging in archives, public speaking, logical analysis, or whatever, and consider yourself an apprentice trying to master that craft. Painters put paint to canvas, biologists record what they observe in microscopes, and engineers design all kinds of systems. But humanists, lost in ideas, often forget how to make, build and create.
It is a myth that the humanities are useless and impractical. They do not lend themselves to automatic application at the behest of others, but they provide extraordinary ideas for which you can discover applications. Employers do not always know to look for good research, writing and analytical skills, but they often recognize their value when demonstrated. Sometimes you have to be self-employed for a while to prove it.
If you know you want to study liberal arts but still worry about marketability, then think about taking on a dual major or minor that gives you an immediately applicable skill, whether economic analysis, web design or a language in high demand that interests you, such as Chinese, Korean, Turkish or Portuguese.
College is the best chance you’ll ever have to study the masterpieces of human arts and letters. You won’t regret it. But if you worry about getting a job, then start thinking about innovative ways to apply the analytical and writing skills you will gain from liberal arts. And don’t shy away from learning some technical skills along the way.
Gertken is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of English.