My gloriously useless degrees in the humanities

Many insist the US needs more engineers and scientists to revive the economy. The hard truth is no degree guarantees a secure trajectory anymore. While I may not remember all I absorbed studying the humanities, I learned to think for myself. That has been invaluable in the workplace.

Richard Drew/AP
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address to graduates at all-female Barnard College, on the campus of Columbia University, in New York, May 14. Op-ed contributor Katrin Park, who earned her master's degree at Columbia, writes: 'There was no way of knowing which major or degree was going to be 'useful.' And since then, everything around me is constantly changing – and I with it.'

When I left school in 2002 with a master’s degree in international affairs, I was set on having a career at the United Nations. By then I had already once changed career by dropping out of a clinical psychology program. Ten years later, I have the experience of both working for and leaving the UN.

In my undergraduate and graduate studies, I found pure joy in learning history and philosophy; studying the requirements, including statistics and economics, was less joyful. What I learned in both types of courses, though, was equally useless when I made my way as a working adult.

What was useful was the fact that I had a diploma in a relevant field, even though my mastery of the content mattered very little. It was useful that I was enthusiastic and willing to work long hours. On the other hand, I lacked the constitution to thrive in a hierarchical organization such as the UN. But school couldn’t have taught me that. The rest of what I needed, I learned on the job.

For generations, higher education has been associated with better career prospects. And certain degrees, parents believed, represented more marketable skills.

At the peak of the Occupy movements last September, Florida Gov. Rick Scott argued that his state didn’t need more people with anthropology degrees, but that state funds should go to degrees that can get people jobs.

There is no paucity of researchers, policymakers, and business leaders who insist that producing more highly trained engineers and scientists is the key to reviving the economy. Many have embraced the House decision in May to cut funding for political science research at universities and reallocate it to physics, engineering, and chemistry through the National Science Foundation.

In a similar trend, the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States, has seen its annual budget shrink from $167.5 million in 2010 to $146 million this year. Academics are worried that budgetary shortfalls will push the humanities to backslide a century, when only a privileged few had access to them. 

The hard truth is no degree guarantees a clear-cut, secure professional trajectory anymore. 

Take a look at Europe’s most economically troubled countries. In Spain, for example, the job market hardly kept up with the rising education rates and half of its young people are unemployed. In America, half of the unemployed aged 25 and younger have some form of college education. Almost 40 percent of graduates who are employed are working in jobs that do not require a college degree.

“Security” today, as a former colleague of mine said, is skills, not a permanent contract. When I think about the work I did at the UN, knowledge of phenomenology or regression analysis was absolutely useless. But the ability to sum up hundreds of pages of technical and bureaucratic language in a crisp memo or a snappy presentation was – is – a great asset.

A foreign language works like a passport. Critical thinking helps put complex situations into perspective. Emotional acuity serves as a compass when navigating office politics. And these are skills that training in the humanities can enhance.

Commentators have already pointed out that unemployment among recent college graduates is not due to mismatch of skills, but rather to a lack of demand in the feeble economy. In the absence of growth to create jobs, young people with or without a college degree will continue to bear the brunt of the consequences.   

Higher education is more than a vocational or technical training. The essential purpose of it has never been primarily about “usefulness” in a narrow sense of acquiring a specific, practical tool to make oneself marketable. 

In the words of my late college professor – of philosophy – the purpose of higher education is to become broadly acquainted with cultural traditions and deeply appreciate them, so that it may help us become responsible citizens and good people in general. 

It is also about love – learning what one loves for the love of learning. Hence, it is “gloriously useless.” 

Sadly, it seems that rising student debt, coupled with the lack of economic opportunities thereafter, are diminishing access not only to certain disciplines but to higher education altogether. The recent cuts in the federal Pell Grant to save $11 billion over 10 years will make it even more difficult for low-income students to get a college education.

As for me, there was no way of knowing which major or degree was going to be “useful.” And since then, everything around me is constantly changing – and I with it. Priorities shift and my heart no longer desires what it once did.

I have long forgotten the details of what I absorbed in classrooms and libraries. I did, however, learn how to think for myself, and that is invaluable in the workplace and outside of it.

Katrin Park lives in London, where she works at an intergovernmental organization. Previously, she worked at the United Nations in New York as a communications specialist. She has a master’s degree in psychology and international affairs from Columbia University.  

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