When Humanities Becomes the World

A study of the humanities opens doors to a world of opportunities, giving graduates a surprising advantage in today’s competitive job market.

If you read the news—or even if you don’t—you’ve probably been made aware of a decline or “crisis” of the humanities.

As recent book titles suggest—titles like Blow Up the Humanities; Not for Profit; College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be; and Remaking College—there are a number of approaches to the so-called humanities crisis. Some want simply to abolish the humanities. Some are nostalgic. Others are idealistic. Still others, like the contributors to Remaking College, are sincerely trying to figure out practical ways to adapt the humanities for the contemporary world.

This national discussion on the humanities has been going on for a long, long time. Reference to a “crisis” goes back to the 1920s. Then there was a spike in the ’60s, analyzed famously by J. H. Plumb, and another huge spike in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

In summer 2013, however, we reached an all-time high in negative commentary, largely in reaction to two reports: The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College and The Heart of the Matter, an extensive report on the state of the humanities and social sciences conducted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Both studies address the recent and dramatic decline in numbers of humanities students in American universities. To give you an idea, the New York Times reported a 20 percent decline in the number of humanities students at Harvard in the last decade.

Although both reports speculate on possible causes and solutions to the problem, neither is convincing, especially because they fail to address one of the main concerns of students and tuition-paying parents: the relevance of the humanities for career opportunity.

I do prefer The Heart of the Matter, I should say, because it mentions three universities with the most innovative approaches to the humanities and careers in the United States—Princeton, Chicago, and, yes, BYU!

The Major Issue

So what are the main sources of the problem? What are the pressures on liberal arts colleges and colleges of humanities?

1. Cost, or ROI—return on investment. College is getting very expensive. The job market is tight. This translates to many students focusing on college as career preparation. We in the humanities traditionally don’t look at what we do that way.

2. Perceived disconnect between humanities and careers. This is tied to what I call a “language” or “narrative” problem. We simply do not know how to talk about our disciplines in ways that are relevant to career concerns.

3. Lack of a globalizing and professionalizing strategy. Often, career services don’t understand the humanities, and thus, they don’t know how to align students with opportunities beyond the most obvious ones.

The biggest problem, frankly, is the contradiction between the idea that college is career prep and the perception—or misperception—that the humanities have no role to play in that. Most students’ approach to career prep is to think about it in terms of the major. This is natural; we all focus on it. And students often pick their major by the name of the profession embedded in the major’s name—education: educator; accounting: accountant; nursing: nurse. The choice of major often seems to provide a clear pathway to a successful career.

Where do the humanities fit into career thinking since our name doesn’t align with a profession? The question really is What are the humanities and where do they lead? Many students and parents simply have no idea.

To remedy that, our Humanities Lab gathered alumni data over about a decade, studying humanities majors and the careers they led to. We learned a couple of things from this effort: one is that, despite popular mythology, humanities degrees lead to any number of careers. Second, there are some predictable pathways, such as education and law; humanities majors are great preparation for professional school, including medicine. But there’s also business, management, communications, marketing, IT, and so on. Our majors go basically everywhere.

Now obviously, choosing a major is important. But in my view, there is an overemphasis on the major to the exclusion of other skills and capacities required by the marketplace.

What Employers Want

So what is it that employers value? This question, curiously, is almost never asked by people studying the humanities! Some people find it “crass” (we’re not supposed to be about career prep), or they assume they know in advance and pull their arguments out of their hats.

If BYU’s approach has been at all innovative, it’s because we listen to the employer’s perspective. And what do we learn?

1. The labor market wants employees with a combination of skills, disciplines, and experiences. The key words here are interdisciplinarity and hybridity. This is good news for humanities majors not going on for graduate study. It means that you can study the humanities as long as you combine them with coursework in some technical field.

But the opposite is also true: business, tech, and vocational majors shouldn’t be sitting on their laurels. They also need to combine their training with other disciplines, especially when thinking about long-term career opportunities. The point is to think about your undergraduate education holistically, not just as a narrow specialization.

2. A portion of the hiring of recent college graduates is “major-independent.” What this means is that the “undeclared” majors—or those deferring their choice, thinking that the major is the ticket to success—are perhaps wasting precious time.

To be sure, if you want a specific profession like engineering or nursing or architecture, then obviously you need that major. But for many jobs, the major is simply not that important. If you look at data on CEOs across the country, an inordinate number of them attended liberal arts colleges for their undergraduate degree.

Another study, by the Chronicle of Higher Education, says the same thing. The top priority for employers is not your major or even your college’s reputation. It’s internships and experience.

3. Less than half of managers find recent grads prepared for work. Now, it’s true, as colleagues often remind me, that universities are not trade schools, but clearly there’s something wrong. This begs the question: What exactly is missing?

What is missing are the “essential skills”—those required by a majority of employers. The gap comes from universities not teaching these things, or not explicitly, and employers no longer wanting to do on-the-job training. These essential skills include, among others, the abilities to

• analyze and interpret information;

• communicate persuasively, using data and analysis;

• engage in continual learning—learn how to teach yourself (this is a much-needed skill today);

• how initiative (this is more of a character trait, and it is often missing in students as they enter the market-place); and

• understand the impact of a company or organization in a global setting (I think this is BYU’s true competitive advantage—and it is highly valued today).

It is obvious that many of these traits and skills can be identified and cultivated in almost any major, even in the humanities. We just need to help students identify and extract these skills from what we’re already doing.

CERI (Collegiate Employment Research Institute), a labor research institute at Michigan State University run by Dr. Philip D. Gardner, focuses almost exclusively on college students entering the marketplace. Dr. Gardner analyzes data based on annual surveys of around 5,000 companies, from the Fortune 100 to small businesses, and can tell us what the hot degrees are, what the hiring trends are, and so forth. After years of conducting such research, he has come to this conclusion: “There are really only two choices for graduates who want a lot of options: to be a technically savvy liberal arts graduate or a liberally educated technical graduate.” Again, the key concept is hybridity!

4. There is also abundant market evidence demonstrating that nearly every sector of the economy finds value in the humanities and liberal arts, whether in business, technology, medicine, engineering, or military. The Humanities+ blog (humanitiesplus.byu.edu) that I have curated for the past five years, for example, has all the anecdotes one needs to feel confident about the importance of the humanities for the marketplace. Here are titles of a few articles shared on the blog:

“High Tech Needs Humanities PhDs, Say Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs at Stanford Conference” (Stanford News)

“The Education Our Economy Needs” (Wall Street Journal): A former CEO of Lockheed Martin writes about the necessity of humanistic study for engineers

“A Liberal Arts Degree Is More Valuable Than Learning Any Trade” (Forbes)

“Google Leads Search for Humanities PhD Graduates” (Times Higher Education)

The Humanities Edge

Given this configuration of facts about the global marketplace, we in the College of Humanities have developed a couple of initiatives for leveraging what we believe to be our students’ competitive advantage.

The names we have given to these initiatives are Humanities+ and +Humanities. In Humanities+, humanities disciplines remain the center of gravity, but we encourage students to supplement their study with technical coursework, mentored research, leadership roles, and—above all—internship experiences.

With +Humanities, we want faculty and students across campus to see us as a valuable resource—not only for professionalizing foreign language skills, but also for cultivating the crucial skills of writing, textual analysis, historical insight, and cross-cultural thinking.

Our approach to launching these initiatives has been primarily an advising strategy. We want to get information to students so that they can devise a plan early and begin doing stuff that counts—whether it’s for a career or for graduate school.

So this begs the question, what counts? Based on national survey data, the internship is the single most important supplement, and more than 80 percent of hiring managers say students should have a formal internship before graduating from college.

Given the importance of the internship, we in the College of Humanities have put our focus on global internships—both financially and intellectually. We have international internship programs in every department, from English to Japanese, French, Spanish, Russian, and so on. Our college has a substantial presence overseas. In fact, student participation has grown from 3 to 25 percent over the past five years. We’d like to get participation up to 50 percent.

We’ve also put our focus on curriculum. We’ve been engaged in intercollege collaboration, mainly with business but also engineering. We’ve encouraged our students to minor outside of our college—for example, in international development or international business. The Marriott School developed a program for our students called the global business and literacy minor. We encourage hybridity of skills via minors (and sometimes double majors). And language certificates allow students in other vocationally oriented colleges to professionalize and certify their language skills.

I want to close with reference to an industry that is, in my view, perfectly suited for BYU humanities students—the language services industry. It is currently valued at $32 billion annually and is rapidly growing. At the GALA (Globalization and Localization Association, the major language-services association in the world) conference this spring in Istanbul, Turkey, BYU was the only educational institution present. My assistant dean, Dave Waddell, and I were accosted by dozens of employers from all over the world looking for what they call “global talent.” Evidently, BYU has global talent. They assured me that they would love to hire our students.

Most of the world’s major problems to be solved and opportunities to be had depend—and will increasingly depend—on innovative, supple thinkers who can negotiate disciplinary, cultural, and linguistic divides. From my perspective, if BYU students are not the most suited for this contemporary challenge, I really have no idea who could be.

Note: This article is adapted from a forum address given July 15, 2014, by Scott M. Sprenger, then an associate dean in the BYU College of Humanities. He is currently provost at the American University of Paris.