November 4, 2015

LEUNG | Defending the Humanities

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I will begin by acknowledging that I’ve always struggled with math and science courses. I don’t know whether it was my difficulty with the subjects that led me to hate them, or my hatred towards the subjects that caused me to suffer. Either way, these courses were never my forte. When I was in elementary school, I looked forward to art class the most. I waited for the time of day when I was free to draw or paint or sculpt. My school also had a project where kids could write short stories and complement them with hand-drawn illustrations. Parent volunteers would bind the finished product for the students so that we would have a physical copy of our work. I think I wrote over 10 different stories during my time there. Instead of entering science competitions, I was submitting my artwork and writing. Basically, I loved anything that allowed me to create.

Fast forward to high school. I learned fast that taking an A.P. course in biology, statistics, chemistry or physics gave a student an advantage over someone who decided to take an A.P. course in English, art history, government or a foreign language. Suddenly you were “smart”  if you were interested in biology and knew you wanted to be a doctor someday. Suddenly you “had your life together” if you knew you would take the pre-med track in college. As one who can’t tell you the difference between the Krebs Cycle and the Calvin Cycle, I definitely fall into the socially-constructed category of someone who doesn’t have their life figured out. I enjoy reading and writing poetry. I loved working in an arboretum this year and taking care of plants. I spend hours in art museums because I am utterly intrigued by artwork and its history. In other words, the things I enjoy doing and the things I believe are worth pursuing are deemed “unemployable” by many people.

How is this stigma fair?

In a January speech focused on aligning job training programs with employer needs, President Obama said, “I promise you folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” This statement brought about a burst of angry responses from art historians all across the United States. President Barack Obama even wrote a handwritten apology to Anna Collins Johns, an art historian at University of Texas, who took offense over the dig he made at art history majors in his speech. I believe the apology was well-deserved.

According to The Telegraph, nine percent of the world’s billionaires studied an arts subject while at an university, while eight percent studied economics, four percent studied math and sciences and three percent studied finance. Thus, some of the worlds’ wealthiest people studied the arts over more “practical” topics, and were successful nonetheless.

Contrary to popular belief, art history majors are able to find jobs: the senior vice president of a top fashion company, Sara Dennis, explains that “majoring in art history allowed me to relate to and understand the psychology of the creative mind.” Jamie Crapanzano, the manager at Guggenheim Partners said, “My art history education was the first step in training my eye to recognize the recurring signatures of price movement in the financial markets.” Kelly Sortino, who worked for Google and the Boston Consulting Group, explained, “I’m convinced that being an art history major helped me stand out as an applicant to Stanford Business School. Since then […] no one [has] batted an eyelash that I didn’t pursue a more ‘practical’ major.” Art history majors gain a plethora of important skills employers value, such as strong writing skills, problem-solving and decision-making, as well as broad historical and cultural knowledge. The ability to view things from a different perspective — not only an art history perspective, but a humanities one in general — is an important trait to have in the work force. Employers are constantly looking for new ideas and ways to innovate.

I acknowledge that there is a distinction between pursuing one’s passions and finding a job that guarantees money and stability. But there is nothing wrong with merging your love for something with your major. A lot of times, graduates who stick with “safe” majors report lower rates of job satisfaction. And if a job is something you are stuck with day after day and month after month, is it worth it to settle? For some, maybe it is. For others, it absolutely is not.

If you know you want to go into medicine or law or economics or engineering — good for you. There is nothing wrong with knowing what you want to do and going for it. But for the rest who are merely searching for a major that will land them a successful job, nothing is guaranteed in the workforce. What truly matters is gaining skills, having knowledge and being able to apply that knowledge. If you truly love your major, then that will come easily. Remember: English, art history, government and other humanities majors are just as important as everyone else.

Gaby Leung is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached atgl376@cornell.edu. Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

One thought on “LEUNG | Defending the Humanities

  1. You may get a job with an art history degrees, but the job you get will only be nominally related to your field in most cases.

    I won’t say the humanities are completely unimportant or useless because that isn’t true. They’re just significantly les useful than STEM fields and that’s reflected in the earning potential each degree gets you.

    Also as a side note, while I don’t care if you want to burn through $250,000 over 4 years studying art history, it is a very poor investment decision

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