In the past decade, the number of students studying humanities has shrunk across colleges and universities. In 2011, at least a third of college students were studying the humanities. By 2018, there was less than a quarter. Despite an increasing number of students in the US enrolling in higher education, the humanities are facing a crisis. As Benjamin Schmidt writes for The Atlantic, some of this can be attributed to changing ideas of available careers in a tech-dominant world. 

However, there is also the idea that the humanities, and even social sciences, are “worthless.” After all, the average income of those who majored in STEM is $65,000 in comparison to non-STEM majors at $49,500. Furthermore, the job market in STEM is growing 17% faster than any other field, and the National Foundation of Sciences predicts that 80% of careers in the future will require math and science skills. 

As a recent college graduate, I’ve seen the shift in my own alma mater. As a liberal arts college, it requires a foundational understanding of humanities and social sciences for all of its students. And yet, economics, math, computer science, and neuroscience have consistently been its most popular majors in the last five years. 

So how could there be space for the humanities and arts?

But rather than give in, I doubled down—quite literally. I double-majored in Politics and English, with double minors in Linguistics and Russian & Eastern European studies. I’m lucky enough to have attended a liberal arts college, but I’m also lucky that my parents didn’t question my choice of major.

It’s a privilege that many Asian Americans and people of color do not have. 

Other family members do raise an eyebrow, however. One year, when I shared with my grandparents that I’d be spending a summer taking extra classes for my Russian minor, they were genuinely confused and asked me why.

The answer was simple. I loved the literature, I enjoyed translation studies, and it was a good adjacent to both my Politics and English degree. 

“You should be studying Chinese,” my grandfather said. “It’s important for business. Now, many business deals are done in China.” I explained that, at 20-years-old, I had no interest in studying business.

“Yes, so many people speak Chinese nowadays. Who speaks Russian?” My grandmother asked.

“I guess Russians,” my dad laughed in response, pointing out the obvious. 

But in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the eponymous character’s degree in Russian literature is treated as something of a recurring joke. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History casts the Classics department as elitist for the reason that only wealthy students who don’t actually need jobs study it. Avenue Q opens with the song, “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?/It sucks to be me.” 

But those TV shows, music, and books are products of the humanities and arts. In the past year, the pandemic has most of us socially isolated. Science in tech and healthcare has allowed us to keep working from home and staying alive. But still, everywhere I look, I find people turning to the arts as well.

We seek books, reading recommendations, TV shows, music, even theater to get us through this time period. It’s also been a year of social unrest, struggle, and protest. It renews the importance of the social sciences—history, politics, ethnic studies, etc. 

Answers to Avenue Q’s question exist. My classmates in these “worthless” degrees have been able to find careers in election campaigns, social work, art management, journalism, government, editorial work, and media. Others have gone on to graduate degree programs in law, public policy, and research.

I’ll be honest and say that, out of the gate from graduation, we’re not earning the same as my high school friends who went into computer science and finance.

But for most of us, it’s work that we genuinely love and can continue to grow in. Their work in these sectors gives me hope that we can build a generation of critical thinkers who are dedicated to creating a more thoughtful and ethical world that is worth living in.

As Robin William’s character of John Keating says in Dead Poets Society, “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

I like to think there will always be space in the world for such things.

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  • Helena Ong

    Helena Ong is a freelance writer and journalist from San Francisco, California. In the past, she's worked at San Francisco Public Press, World Policy Journal, and NBC4 Los Angeles. She graduated from Pomona College, where she served as Production Editor for her college newspaper, The Student Life.