Full disclosure: I majored in comparative literature in college and then went on to do a master’s and a Ph.D. in English literature. Having also served as a professor for several years at a small private liberal arts college, I clearly have a particular leaning toward the liberal arts.

This doesn’t mean, however, that when I read comments like this from James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, that I don’t wince a little: “[W]hat the humanities prepares you for is a trajectory. Humanities education may not prepare you for a job, but humanities education prepares you for a career.” Is this comforting to the “one in three graduates of four-year colleges [who] feels their education did not prepare them well for employment”? “This sentiment,” according to the McKinsey/Chegg survey entitled “The Voice of the Graduate,” “is especially pronounced among those who majored in visual and performing arts and liberal arts.”

I can’t help but think of the newly minted bachelor’s degree-holder from Marquette University named Mary Chapman, recently featured in the Chicago Tribune, who, out of desperation for better job opportunities, enrolled in a local community college for further certification. She opted for “middle skills” training in phlebotomy because as she explains: “I did get this fantastic education, except the rules changed. It’s a whole new world that I wasn’t prepared for.”

It is no wonder that it is becoming increasingly difficult to persuade college students of the benefits of majoring in the humanities. Even in his defense of the English major, Verlyn Klinkenborg acknowledges that one must adopt a “wait and see” attitude: “What many undergraduates do not know—and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them—is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.” The long-term pay-off of these gifts or the promise of the potential of the liberal arts may not be enough for students who are finding themselves underprepared for the specialized skills required of them in well-paying high-skills jobs.

How can we argue convincingly against the “new and narrowing vocational emphasis” when, in a Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce study of majors with the highest and lowest unemployment rates, Anthony Carnevale and Ban Cheah conclude firmly “a harsh reality: not all college degrees are created equal.” They affirm that “specific fields and the higher technical skills…often do offer lower unemployment and higher earnings.”

While I have difficulties arguing for the primacy of the liberal arts, I actually do believe that Klinkenborg is right to proffer that “[m]aybe it takes some living to find out this truth” of literacy—this “rare and precious inheritance.” I’ve witnessed in my own work in the private sector that it took time to observe the ways in which my engagement with writing and research taught me about self-discipline, communication, time and project management, as well as other core competencies of the workplace.

It certainly took me some “living” to realize that none of my professors in college or graduate school were able to translate to me how what I was learning and how I was learning would make me a more skilled, creative, empathetic, and efficient worker. I can also acknowledge how ill equipped I was at explaining adequately this translation of skills to my own students. I couldn’t make clear the ultimate benefits of this “fundamental gift of the humanities” because I hadn’t yet lived it.

And maybe that’s the problem. Most professors pursue their graduate studies after showing their mastery of theory and special subjects in college that they then narrow further through their doctoral programs. I would estimate that a very low percentage of humanities professors have had sufficient experience with the labor market outside of academia to grasp fully the ways in which a liberal arts degree does or does not have traction within different industries. It therefore makes perfect sense as to why professors would be the least articulate in terms of conveying to their students how the skills that they’re developing as writers and critical thinkers translate into meaningful skills within the workforce.

We cannot expect students to assume a “wait and see” perspective of the benefits of what Klinkenborg calls “literacy” without a “dollar sign.” We must therefore figure out better ways to explain why the humanities matter outside of academia. Otherwise, New York Times writer Nate Silver’s attitude might simply have to do when he suggests: “Perhaps we should at once encourage or require college students to take coursework in English—and tell them to be wary about majoring in it.”


  • Michelle R. Weise, PhD
    Michelle R. Weise, PhD