Old Myths and Current Realities in the Futures of Humanities Majors

In late April of 1992, with finals week at BYU in our rear-view mirror, four college friends and I set out on a great American road trip built around visits to national landmarks (Mt. Rushmore and the Gateway Arch), church history sites (Jackson County and Nauvoo), and Major League Baseball games (Nolan Ryan pitching for the Rangers at Comiskey Park and a 11-inning marathon between the Cards and Expos in a freezing Busch Stadium). Oddly enough, amid a jam-packed itinerary, one of the trip’s most memorable experiences came while waiting for a table at Gino’s East Pizza in Chicago, where we befriended a group ahead of us in line who were in town for a gerontology conference.

All roughly our parents’ age, these gerontologists were true evangelists for their field. Upon discovering we were in college, they promptly set out to convince us that any right-thinking university student would do well to position him or herself to capitalize on the imminent mass-retirements of America’s baby boomers. After a few minutes, one particularly zealous member of their group began grilling us about our chosen majors, assigning a grade for how well prepared each of us would be for an economy soon to revolve around elder care. Much to his delight, the first four he interrogated proved golden investigators: an aspiring orthopedic surgeon (A+), ophthalmologist (A+), physical therapist (A), and pharmacist (B+, but correctable to an A if he dropped his major in art). Alas, however, he then came to me, a wannabe literature professor who had somehow thought it a good idea to spend much of this testosterone-filled road trip reading Pride and Prejudice in the back of the van. Not surprisingly, the gerontologist was considerably less keen on my professional prospects, struggling to find something, anything, an English major might offer the economy of tomorrow. Somewhat reluctantly, yet much to my friends’ delight, he ultimately suggested that starting college anew with a more pragmatic major might be my best option.

Over a quarter-century later, our encounter outside Gino’s East remains a good enough story that it still regularly resurfaces whenever this group of friends gets together. That said, it’s not that good of a story, and I suspect many readers of this blog will have tales of their own in this genre that would easily top mine. Even at a selective university like BYU, where cultivating broad knowledge and intellectual curiosity remain integral to the institutional mission, we’ve yet to see the moment when students studying English, history, or philosophy haven’t reflexively assumed defensive positions whenever the discussion pivots to one’s choice of majors.

Of course, humanities students and, better yet, their parents can take some comfort from the “humanities majors desperately wanted”articles that routinely pop up in venues like the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and Forbes. Yet, as I learned from Jane Austen back in 1992, a particular idea having become “a truth universally acknowledged” in certain circles by no means guarantees its being considered natural law or even common sense beyond that group’s borders. In some respects, arguments for the enduring value of humanistic methods and traditions are akin to polemics about the reality of global warming, the necessity of immunizations, and the benefits of sunscreen, as all of these “verifiable truths” are wont to be easily forgotten or obscured if not communicated strategically, creatively, and repeatedly.

In this spirit, I’ll close by sharing what my five years (2012-17) as the faculty coordinator of BYU’s European Studies program taught me about the value and challenges of liberal arts degrees in the early twenty-first century. Drafting largely off our college’s “Humanities+” initiatives, I made it my mantra to convince every new crop of European Studies students that A) they had chosen one of the best undergraduate majors at BYU and B) they needed to meaningfully supplement the major if they wanted to be fully prepared for post-graduate realities. While my students were generally receptive to this message, few, if any, were ever moved to action by the vague assurances of a New York Times op-ed or anecdote about a septuagenarian CEO who still cherished his BA in French. What proved considerably more effective was providing them with concrete, recent examples (like those in the chart below) of students cut from the same cloth as them hitting the ground running after BYU because they had followed the simple Humanities+ (or European-Studies+) formula. Obviously, no single data point or illustration will fully counter cultural assumptions about the value of humanistic education that over several generations have become hardwired. But I’m more convinced than ever that the preponderance of evidence is on our side, which makes effectively gathering and sharing it all the more imperative.

This post was written by Nick Mason, Humanities Center Faculty Fellow

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  1. Great anecdote and substantial evidence, Nick, that we’re on the right track in our college but that we need to present that evidence in effective ways if we’re going to get students and their parents to reduce their carbon footprints, keep up on their immunizations, wear sunscreen, and embrace Humanities+. All that’s exactly what keeps me young, so it’ll still be a long time before those pizza-eating gerontologists get hold of me.

    1. If any of those gerontologists are still alive! Thanks. Phil.

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