Counting (on) Success: Does an Education in the Humanities Count in Today's Day and Age?

08/19/2015 04:01 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2016

The Humanities have had an especially challenging time in recent years defending the value of their education to students and parents, to policymakers and politicians. The press has left a rather bleak--yet unusually simplistic and contradictory--impression on their readers using material on enrollment numbers, degrees granted, employment opportunities, and, of course, cost. The cost of college and the cost of the Humanities. Everyone wants to know: "How much does an education in the Arts and Humanities count in today's day and age?"

Perhaps we should take a step back and ask ourselves how we are counting (the value of) the Humanities. Let's start with the contemporary use of the term "Humanities" in the United States. Which disciplines do we include in this category? Philosophy, Classics, Foreign Languages, Theatre... these appear to be our core disciplines, as the Humanities Indicator defines them. We can count those. Even programs in the so-called Area Studies, such as East Asian or African Studies, tend to be included, albeit shared with the Social Sciences.

But what do we do with Anthropology, Linguistics or Law? How do we account for their humanistic content and approaches? And how about emerging fields like Humanistic Engineering, Medical Humanities, Environmental Humanities? Are these fields factored into the disciplines that count as Humanities when determining enrollments, degrees granted, and so on? To what degree? Whole, half, one third, not at all?

When success is measured in terms of the salaries earned after college, the Humanities fair differently depending on how many years are counted, as this recent Forbes piece suggests. And when professional happiness is factored into the picture, we may observe an entirely different trend. How then do we measure the value of a background in the Humanities within the evolving span of an individual's professional and personal path, a path, I might add, that is never straight nor narrow. What do we count and when do we stop counting? After five? Ten? Fifty years? Or might the end of our lives expose the true value of the Humanities?

Since students are counting on success after college, oftentimes the Humanities are measured by counting those students whose degrees directly and immediately lead to a place of employment in their major. If you earn a degree in Art History and get a job working as a museum curator, your degree counts. But then how do you account for the Art student who gets a job in the auto industry? Or the Philosopher who has been hired by Google?

Recent trends in the business and tech industry seem to suggest that individuals with a background in the Humanities are counted more these days. Just this past month, Forbes articulated why Slack Technologies valued an employee with a background in Theatre. Ubisoft, a videogame company, discussed the value of their in-house Historian. And Philosophy seems to be the degree of choice for future entrepreneurs.

While there is certainly a place for employees with narrow skill sets, colleges and employers agree that the future lies in the ability of the next generation to connect, communicate, share and learn from one another. They are searching for students like Lily Marks, a graduate of Hamilton College, who articulated in a blog on "What Programming and Poetry Can Teach Us About Creativity," that "the brain's processes required to master [Computer Science] are similar to the process of learning a new language." Therefore, "to program without creativity should seem as ridiculous as penning fiction without imagination."

It is in the humble recognition of all that unites and separates us that we are able to move forward in this interconnected ecosystem; it is in the respectful understanding of the possibilities and limitations of each field and approach that new value can be found. Therefore, we must recognize that a degree in German is just as important as one in Engineering, yet our sense of social value seems to indicate otherwise: "I have a degree in Engineering and German," not "German and Engineering" is what most will say.

In reality not everyone can or must delve deeply into more than one field, nor is it the mission of all institutions to do so (nor does it have to be). How then, do we count other types of interactions with humanities content? If one were to give one point to one major, how many points do we attribute to a student who takes a class on ethics in a business program? How many points do we give to a module or practicum on music as applied to electrical engineering? What is the value attributed to the learning of skills that span multiple disciplines, such as writing or creativity? Are they only counted toward English or Visual Arts when writing is just as important in a field like Astronomy, as former NASA specialist Elaina McCartney will tell you?

To talk about the value of all that constitutes the Humanities, we must understand how they play, or should play a role in the foundational learning of students in any institutional settings, from Liberal Arts to vocational schools and even apprenticeship models. Common sense tells us that any Business School should include History and Ethics in its curriculum, not as a byline, but as a deeply important part of the learning it wants to foster in its student body. Can Nursing students afford not to have some knowledge of religion, culture, or foreign languages? Aren't analytical skills ever more important in a world that sits before screens ingesting information every day? Whether in whole, in part, or in bits and pieces, the Humanities count now more than ever.

As we consider the many ways in which humanistic components are integrated into different learning environments, we also, necessarily, need to break out of the traditional ways in which we talk about their existence. Raashika Goyal, a Philosophy and Neuroscience sophomore at Union College examined an essential question in her blog titled "Pursuing a New Perspective in Medicine." She asked: "How can we share and explore the arts and humanities in the 21st century by thinking beyond the realms to which they had previously been assigned?"

The realms within which we are counting the value of the Humanities are changing and multiplying in many exciting ways. The Humanities today are plural and hybrid, they are both one and many, and they are living and breathing in many more spaces, as may be observed in the rise of collaborative Hubs, Labs or Makerspaces. They are deeply anchored in important scholarly endeavors at the same time that they are appropriated and invested with exciting new energy by our students, our faculty, the professional community, and beyond.

Does an education in the Humanities count in today's day and age?" In their vibrant multiplicity, they count in the most human way possible: by helping us count beyond '1'--beyond ourselves, beyond what we know--in ways that exceed what the accounting numbers and salaries tell us is "more." To find the answer, we may just have to stop counting.