Studying the humanities for fun and profit!

The unemployment statistics are daunting: For those with high school degrees only, the unemployment rate is 7.5%. For those with college degrees, it is 3.8%. Except for graduates with B.A. degrees in the humanities. For them, there is basically no hope.

At least, that is what the newspapers would have you believe. Articles abound telling of the sorry parents who are paying overinflated tuitions on the expectation that their young progeny will attend eight lecture courses a year. The articles always seem to include a quote from some sad sack who says, essentially, “My kid is studying humanities and will be sleeping on my couch for the rest of her life.”

Parents and economic writers appear to be having some sway in the matter. The study of humanities generally has dropped to about 7% of degrees today, as opposed to 14% for men a generation ago. (For women, the percentages have dropped even further.)

I am here, folks, to argue for a degree in the humanities for life success and satisfaction, including dollars in the pocket.

First of all, with the humanities accounting for only a small percentage of degrees, you have relative scarcity on your side. Consider art history: If you are determined to be an expert on Vermeer, you can enter the field happy in the knowledge that most civilians think Vermeer is a kind of wood flooring. As the legions of present-day Vermeer experts die off, you can rest assured that someone, someday will tap you on the shoulder and say, “If you know brushstrokes, you are my man!” In the meantime, the History Channel is number one among young men in many time slots, and whether the men know it or not, art is creeping onto the screen. (Yep — I am talking Pawn Stars!)

And Hollywood may well call. A college contemporary of mine got screen credit on a Scorsese picture because he was a degreed expert in bars and brothels.

Second of all, you have beauty and the mind on your side. Curating a work of art is a privilege, and so is thinking great thoughts. You might actually add to the sum of human knowledge, which not every idiot is cut out for. Take that mantle and wear it proudly.

And even if your human-knowledge-adding is on the low-ish side, you might consider that in the 18 years it takes to raise a child, should you choose to do so, the time to think even mediocre thoughts will be snapped away from you like a wet towel. So take the time when you can. And by the way, the 18-year statistic, which I just made up, is per child. More children, more towel snaps.

When you are a bit older, you will have a bedside table, and on that table you might want to place the book you most liked in college. Mine is The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. That might not be to your particular taste, but I will guarantee you that, years from now, the bedside spot will be mournfully empty if your favorite today is Principles of Corporate Finance II.

I’m not necessarily arguing for a degree in English, or for a career in writing. It is true that, as the economy shows periodic shortages of various commodities, from electricity to McRib sandwiches, one weed that has proliferated nicely is the writer. Supply and demand being what they are, a writer is worth approximately one one-hundredth of a bricklayer, and when the writer finishes his work he seldom hears what the bricklayer hears, which is that a potted palm will go nicely atop that job well done.

One area I will argue for is language study. We Americans are famous for our arrogance about the universality of spoken English in the world, which accompanies our willful stupidity in the area of foreign language study. But we are not the only ones to have had this attitude about our language. History shows that the speakers of Greek, Persian, Mayan, Arabic, and French have all been completely confident that their empire’s power assured the primacy of their speech. (I just compared America to the French. I apologize in advance.)



While the American empire may last another few semesters, consider that an American — in any field — who speaks a foreign language will put one on the short list in terms of marketability. A lot of things can be faked in this world, but a foreign language interview is not one of them.

Whether you go into a business career in sales, finance, or engineering, the hiring managers will be confident that they can show you the required organizational ropes and that you will bring your own language skills to the office. Those are things that they cannot teach well in a business environment.

So scarcity should bring monetary profit.

There is also a different form of benefit: the joy of speaking and understanding people in another culture. I would compare it to the pleasure derived from fine food: indescribable and, once enjoyed, an absolute necessity of a life well lived.

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