Do arts and humanities degrees really have no place in the job market today?
Would-be college students are pressured from all directions to choose the most "practical" college degree. Everyone is asking the question, "what major will lead to the most income?" The media is pushing statistics that detail the harsh unemployment rates of students who graduate in the arts and humanities. The pressure is on for college students to choose majors that will pay off. Engineering and health care are championed as the smartest choices for students to pin their hopes on, and the arts and humanities are being labeled obsolete.
The American Historical Association hopes to challenge that very notion with the Tuning Project. Funded by a three-year grant from the Lumina Foundation, the Tuning Project aims to "articulate the disciplinary core of historical study and to define what a student should understand and be able to do at the completion of a history degree program."
P-J photo by Nicholena Moon
The project is composed of history faculty from more than 60 institutions across the United States who have made it their goal to communicate the significance of a history degree in today's job market while helping to define what it truly means to be a history major.
According to Tuning Project member David Kinkela, professor of history and Honors Program director at SUNY Fredonia, history's fall from favor in the public eye can be attributed to a number of factors, including the increasing popularity of secondary and post-secondary STEM programs (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and the increase of global competitors, particularly China and India. Additionally, the desire for students to have a concrete career path in the midst of an economic crisis is contributing to the decline in the humanities' popularity.
Kinkela also points out that proponents of the liberal arts are not particularly efficient marketers. He says the discipline must make it clear that "pursuing a degree in the humanities is not just a noble effort to educate oneself, but that it will lead to a useful and rewarding career."
The vague and elusive uses of a history degree are exactly what the Tuning Project hopes to solidify with its campaign. Kinkela describes history students as problem-solvers, and maintains that the subject has competitive uses in today's job market.
"A degree in the humanities offer students the ability to think about their world differently and to grapple with the complexity of the human experiences across time," he says. "Of course, there are no jobs that ask for such a knowledge base, but the humanities offer more than that."
Although engineering and nursing majors may confer concrete practical skills, humanities majors are flexible and adaptable, often bringing creative solutions to the workplace. Oral and written communication skills form the cornerstone of any humanities program, giving majors an edge on the competition in job applications and interviews and enabling them to communicate effectively to others in their chosen field.
Choices for humanities majors may not be as limited as they seem. Tuning Project member Julie Gibert, professor of history at Canisius College, says that popular and growing fields such as the health care industry are not science-exclusive.
"There are very significant numbers of administrators, for example, and researchers who put scientific research into broader social and historical contexts, not to mention people whose job is to facilitate communication between scientists and the broader community," she says. "Those might be classified as jobs in health-related fields, but they're perfect for humanities majors whose interests, aptitudes, and training concentrate on interpreting and communicating information and ideas."
Additionally, Gibert points out that data showing the decline of humanities majors fails to recognize those who move on to more marketable graduate programs, which typically draw from a large pool of majors.
"In my department right now we have five or six students who are majoring in history while also preparing themselves for med school, and I understand that medical schools are very receptive to students who majored in humanities fields," she says.
There's no reason why the sciences and the humanities can't be friends. According to Kinkela, BA and BS majors have more in common than they think.
"Personally, I would like to see the humanities develop stronger connections with the STEM disciplines," he says. "Not only can we learn much from each other, but we can also dispel the notion that the sciences and humanities are completely different."