Why We Undervalue the Humanities

When we start our careers after college, we frequently have limited work experience for our expected professions and enter the workforce based upon the skills from our majors. Computer scientists advertise their expertise with CSS, Python, and HTML, biologists list their applicable lab techniques (gel electrophoresis, chromatography, etc.), and students from the humanities stress their extensive practice with research, written communication, and analysis. Despite the value of these humanities skills for private and public institutions, entry-level job applicants without field-specific knowledge cannot always compete with their more technically-inclined counterparts. Why do executives simultaneously insist higher-level problem-solving drives success and still resist hiring soft-skill specialists from English, History, and Philosophy?

Professionals from the humanities face two related problems: almost everyone within the modern workforce can hypothetically research, write, and analyze problems and solutions, and these skills resist quantification. Technical resumes outline general “tiers” between levels of expertise: the words “proficiency,” “fluency,” “competency,” and “familiarity” all mark different thresholds of mastery. Unless employers require portfolios from their applicants, which causes more problems for recent graduates who must either submit academic projects for potential employers or develop portfolios from scratch, companies cannot straightforwardly evaluate soft skills. Most recruiters do not respond favorably when applicants differentiate themselves with their “expert” written and spoken communication skills without extensive evidence that these skills have and will improve the bottom-lines of their companies.

Ultimately, many employers would rather hire employees with valuable hard skills and let their soft skills (hopefully) improve over time than risk hiring applicants from the humanities with flexible abilities who may never become technical experts within their chosen industries. I would recommend employers reconsider this position; if professionals from the humanities are known for research and problem-solving, then they will naturally apply these skills whenever they come across software, equipment, and processes outside their prior experience (for example, I am currently learning about prototyping for my usability research). The questions become: how might professionals from the humanities “quantify” their skills more convincingly so they can receive more opportunities? How might colleges and their professional development courses help students design projects more applicable for the private sector? Would these changes undermine the “impartiality” of higher education and the humanities themselves?

3 thoughts on “Why We Undervalue the Humanities

    • Thank you for the resources; the Hart study and the article from Forbes seem particularly applicable for this discussion and address many of my arguments directly. I have come across similar studies over the past few years, and I think these articles reveal three basic realities about the current job market. 1) The skills students learn from humanities-based educations have become more valuable over time. 2) These same skills facilitate long-term professional success. 3) These skills may have lower short-term returns than the hard skills acquired from the sciences. I would make the following distinction: the depth of specific “soft” skills (i.e. spoken and written communication, problem-analysis, social awareness, etc.) benefits professionals who have already solidified their positions within the job market while the breadth of specific hard skills opens doors for professionals near the outset of their careers. Anyhow, I would definitely enjoy chatting about these questions more if you have any additional thoughts.

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