Are job skills and an education the same thing?

English majors may be in decline, but studying the humanities is still a worthwhile option.

Elise Amendola/AP
The Boston Red Sox's Chaim Bloom smiles at a news conference Oct. 28, 2019, at Fenway Park in Boston, where it was announced he will be the baseball team's Chief Baseball Officer.

Chaim Bloom, the fresh-faced new chief of baseball operations for the Boston Red Sox, graduated from Yale University in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in Latin classics. His team goals may include getting the players to work together in harmony (e pluribus unum) but his professional skills also now include an intricate knowledge of statistical analysis as applied to player assessment, a topic absent from the ancient writings of Cicero or Heraclitus.

The debate over whether a college education should essentially be advanced job training, or whether it has other valuable purposes, goes on, and isn’t likely to be resolved soon. A new statistic could chill proponents of the liberal arts: The number of English majors is down about 25% since the Great Recession a decade ago, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Yet college enrollment in general has risen.

For many worthy reasons advocates have pushed hard for more students to enter science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – or STEM – fields. These skills are in ever-increasing demand by employers. 

Many students are under the pressure of making a hard financial calculation: Will the job I enter out of college pay enough to offset the student loan debts I’ll pile up? When choosing a major, practicality may win out over passion.

Less well known, however, is that liberal arts majors aren’t suffering on payday nearly as much as many might assume. STEM grads race ahead on salaries with diploma in hand, but by age 40 those with humanities degrees have caught up, according to two researchers at Harvard University.

By its very nature liberal arts studies force students to dip into topics they've never thought about. Who might they become as adults? Their imaginations can be set free in unexpected ways, something that drilling down into a highly specialized STEM field too quickly may lack. 

“You should pick a major you’re excited about, and you’re not going to know that for a couple of years,” former first lady Michelle Obama told a group of students who were the first in their families to attend college and wondering how to take advantage of the experience. “So just get out there and try some classes that make you feel excited, and pretty soon you’ll get a sense of which way to go. But take your time. There is no rush.”

Or as Derek Fox, a professor of astronomy (a STEM field) at The Pennsylvania State University, has put it: “Take humanities because of how they make you feel. Take humanities because of how much you love to think. Take humanities because when you push yourself, really push yourself, you realize how far you have to grow and how fast you are capable of getting there.”

Providing a moment in early adulthood when the kaleidoscope of life’s possibilities can be explored is something as many young Americans as possible should experience.

Let them see the big picture of the world first. Then they’ll find where they best fit in. Humanities graduates routinely become lawyers and teachers and entrepreneurs and so many other things. 

Sometimes even baseball executives. 

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

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The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

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