Yup, my rants about humanities degrees are back! It’s May and a bunch of fresh young faces have earned themselves the chance to walk across a stage and a fancy-dancy piece of paper! (That sentence sounds sarcastic, but I’m actually super proud of my fancy piece of paper.)
Some of them are leaving school with the knowledge that they’ll become lawyers, doctors, sales reps, engineers, and accountants. Others feel confident they’ll find work within their field, whether it’s in the oil fields, the lab, or the theatre. And others are staring at their paper and thinking, “What the **** was I thinking?! A degree in the humanities?”
Hear this: Your humanities degree is extremely valuable in ways that only a humanities degree can be! I know this because I’m the proud recipient of a Bachelor of Arts, English Honours, Minor in History.
Don’t believe me? Let’s do this thing.
Here’s why humanities degrees are not worthless!
They make you recognize you’re not even close to understanding everything and everybody, but that doesn’t mean you should stop trying to.
I thought I was pretty smart when I started university. I was a scholarship recipient, I received multiple academic awards throughout my high school years – I must have been a genius!
But then I started taking university level English classes and realized my level of knowledge and understanding barely scraped the surface of what there is to know. I finally recognized that I was an incredibly privileged white kid who had very little understanding of the world beyond North American and European culture. I recognized that I had a fairly rose-coloured view of the world. I recognized that learning about people and their stories from all kinds of backgrounds, time periods, and contexts could only make me a better citizen of the world.
The humanities will teach you that you are one miniscule story among hundreds of billions of other stories, but that all of these stories – whether they’re fictional or not – have important lessons to teach. If you try to learn as many of these lessons as you can, over time you will grow into a more intelligent, more thoughtful, and more tolerant human being.
They help you understand the context of the world we live in.
“Why are people still talking about colonialism?” Because it permeates today from a century of takeovers. You can learn a lot about attitudes towards colonialism in Victorian fiction.
“Libraries are losing their funding? – that’s fine!” But do you understand how monumental it was to get libraries going in the first place? Before the first public libraries opened in the 1800s, people like you and me couldn’t afford to read books! And there are still people today who can’t afford to read books without a library.
“Why are you spouting off random facts, Heather?” Because they demonstrate my point that through learning all you can learn in your humanities degree, you’ll build a historical and cultural context around the world we live in today that will help you better understand why things are the way they are, and how they became the way we are, and what we can do differently to make changes and not repeat our mistakes.
They teach you how to form an educated opinion and build an argument.
You are not going to agree with everybody you meet on everything. And you are not going to sway everybody’s opinion to be the same as yours. But with the help of your degree, you are going to know how to form educated opinions, and you’re going to argue those opinions in a respectful manner, and you’re going to part ways with some people still disagreeing with them but respecting their right to their opinion.
During the past 4-7 years of your life, you’ve been learning how to find the trustworthy sources on which you can build your opinion and argument. You know what’s the real “fake news” and what’s just fact. You know that from the same information, different educated opinions can grow, and that’s okay, as long as everyone remains respectful and continues learning.
They help you hone your skills in decrypting emotions, motivations, and actions of different kinds of people.
Reading fiction is awesome because you can learn so much about the human condition without judging real people. The fictional characters you’re learning from won’t be offended if you think they made a bad decision.
Throughout my degree, I met mad scientists, monsters that thought philosophically, women ahead of their time, magical children, natural disaster victims, bomb survivors, dreamers, poets, manipulative spouses, racists, perverts, business men, pioneers, knights, priests, ghosts, the rich, the poor, Christians, Muslims, athiests, and many more.
They all had different points of views to share and different stories to tell, and from their stories I learned so much about how different people can be and also how similar we all are. I learned about why they did what they did, and how their pasts shaped their futures. I learned that all these lessons from fictional people could be applied to my real life in my encounters with everyone I would meet.
They encourage you to start asking more questions.
When I was younger, I always did what authorities told me to do without question. Authorities want what’s best for us, right? But working through my humanities degree, I learned that it’s good to question authorities, and it’s good to question what you read and hear on the media, and it’s good to question what people tell you, and it’s good to question yourself. All this questioning, of course, needs to be backed up by educated opinions (see point 3 above).
But without the questioners, there would have been no world-changing revolutions, women would still have no political rights, segregation would still be a prominent part of western culture, and the masses would still be relatively uneducated.
Now, this whole blog post is all about how a humanities degree isn’t a waste of your time, but that’s not to say that if you don’t have a degree you need to go get one, and it’s not to say that if you’d rather get a law degree you shouldn’t pursue that. This post is just to say that if you’re looking down at your fancy piece of paper that says Bachelor of Arts on it with regret, you shouldn’t. You should be proud of that piece of paper, and you should know that you have come out of this experience a more rounded, emotionally intelligent, world-class citizen.