How to Major in the Humanities

Yesterday, I discussed my lack of sympathy for students who majored in the humanities without any particular direction - and who then end up waiting tables as described in a recent New York Times article. In that post, I also commented that the liberal arts are an important component of university education. This blog post will attempt to answer how to major in the humanities while avoiding the unsavory service jobs that some graduates have faced upon graduation.

I’ll discuss three plans: 1) Humanities Plus, 2) Practical Humanities, and 3) Pure Humanities.

Plan #1: Humanities Plus

This plan complements a major in a humanities discipline with a skill-based discipline like statistics, computer science, economics, engineering, business, etc. (one could arguably add a critical language like Chinese or Arabic as well if at a high proficiency). This particular approach allows for a tremendous amount of choice, and can also provide considerable depth in the humanities field. A minor in a skills-based discipline at Stanford is 32 units, and if these are spread over 12 quarters, one could take as few as 3 units a quarter to attain the minor at graduation.

While some are surprised to hear this, many careers only require basic knowledge of a few skills - the rest are provided on the job through training and are customized for the particular your particular job function. For instance, technical writing does not require a tremendous amount of knowledge of engineering, but strong communications abilities are crucial for success. Stated without further comment, consulting and finance work in much the same way too. A minor can thus open important new career fields that were not previously available.

In some ways, this is the plan that I chose in my undergraduate education. While I majored in Mathematical and Computational Sciences, I spent a year and a half writing a thesis on the history of the Stanford Computer Science department. With a bit more foresight, a full major in history could have easily been doable (unfortunately, I didn’t choose until junior year, so that option wasn’t possible).

Plan #2: Practical Humanities

Maybe the STEM and applied/practical fields are not for you. Another approach to getting a humanities degree is to ensure that the skills developed in your humanities program match some sort of a career path or at least entry-level position. I call this Practical Humanities, and it essentially demands that one jump to the end and work backward. What are your career goals? Is it to work at an international development non-profit, a museum, a library, or maybe in politics? If that question is a little scary, try answering what you _don’t _want to do first.

This plan also encompasses the professions as well. Maybe you know that you are going to law, medical, or business school. If so, then you have a lot of flexibility in your undergraduate program and need not worry too much about the immediate career path concerns (with the caveat that you should read everything you can about law school before going, and medical school has its pre-med requirements).

One concern that I often hear voiced is that education should not be based on a career - that academics exist to nourish the mind without an end destination. That is fair. However, I also believe that careers in our economy have changed dramatically in the past few decades and that we by and large create the careers we want. Thus, our education could be very, very similar to what we do on the job. It is hardly inconceivable to find a career that nourishes your mind as well as an undergraduate humanities program.

Once a career goal has been established (“the end”), we need to work backward. Many fields require experience, and the best way to get experience is through work-study programs, internships, fellowships, etc. If you are interested in international development, find a local non-profit and volunteer during your undergraduate years. Get an internship over the summer. Use alumni mailing lists and databases and begin talking to the people in the field that you want to work in.

Our overarching goal is to get you situated where you want to go. No one - ever - should graduate from a university and not have a plan in mind about where they want to go. To be clear, I am not asking for a map, but rather a compass direction. If you feel that you don’t know what you want to do and that you are sort of bumbling around in your education, my recommendation is to stop and take a gap quarter, semester, year or however long it takes to focus. It only gets harder after graduation.

Plan #3: Pure Humanities

Alright, so maybe thinking about careers is a little too intense, and you really are only interested in the academic humanities. In other words, you want to go to graduate school in the humanities. This option certainly has its pitfalls (namely that many doctoral-holders in the humanities can’t get employed), but if one goes in with a clear mind, I don’t see any problem with this approach.

This option requires that you devote considerable energy to your department (you should be doing so anyway if you are truly passionate about it). Become a peer advisor, go to seminars hosted by your department, and meet as many of the faculty as you can. In other words, get noticed as the most passionate major in the field in your graduating class. Putting all of your eggs in one basket can actually create its own opportunities. While the job market may suck, some people are doing just fine, and it is not inconceivable that the top student in a department may have a good chance of securing a coveted position.

Conclusion

These are of course not the only options. One of the best themes of higher education these days is the immense flexibility of degree programs. However, these three plans can provide models for how to think about majoring in the humanities without leading yourself into a career you would rather avoid. The best advice I can give is to do what you love best, but be willing to alter that love slightly when looking at reality.