Column: In defense of the humanities

Published June 19 2015
Updated June 19 2015

The University of North Carolina system took a major hit last month when its Board of Governors voted to discontinue or consolidate 56 degree programs that "fell below established productivity standards."

Among the programs eliminated were French and German at East Carolina University, theater and jazz at North Carolina Central University, and Africana studies and women's and gender studies at North Carolina State University.

Sound familiar?

UNC's actions are part of a growing trend of public universities abolishing academic departments no longer deemed popular and profitable.

Take the State University of New York at Albany, which announced in 2010 it was suspending degree programs in French, Italian, Russian and classics.

Or the University of Virginia in 2012, whose current president, Teresa Sullivan, was forced to temporarily resign over a difference of opinion with the university's Board of Visitors. One of the issues at stake? She refused to eliminate departments such as classics and German, according to the Washington Post.

Or consider Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott has publicly criticized state humanities programs. In a 2011 interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, he went so far as to ask, "Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don't think so." (His daughter was an anthropology major.)

I count myself among those jobless miscreants, the "crazy humanities people." I am a classics major.

Like any good humanities student, I'm interested in people and the way they operate. I'm interested in the past and how it affects the future. I'm interested in language and literature and the meaning of life.

But when it comes time to make a decision about which departments to boot, the state doesn't care about my interests. It cares about how much money I'm going to make.

The numbers aren't pretty. According to a 2013-14 PayScale college salary report, the top 10 highest earning majors are all in STEM fields — and seven of them are types of engineering. Classics is the 104th-highest earning major on the list, with an average starting pay of $38,700 and a mid career salary of $57,000.

Even more disconcerting is the shrinking popularity of humanities majors on college campuses. An April Washington Post article noted that the number of English majors at the University of Maryland dropped 39 percent over the past five years, while a 2013 Harvard study indicated that more than half of students intending to major in the humanities before college left with degrees in different areas of study.

So if no one's majoring in the discipline and those who do make no money, why bother to keep the humanities around?

Most academics choose to answer with lofty ideals about the humanist philosophy of a humanities degree. But these ideals won't get you a job. I didn't become a classics major to solve the world's problems. I became a classics major because I liked it.

What are the prospects for an undergraduate humanities major in today's job climate? Not so bad.

First, we know how to write — and this is not a given for many students. In 2011, almost 75 percent of 8th and 12th graders did not achieve proficiency on a national writing test. But humanities students have to learn to think both out loud and on paper.

Then there's verbal communication, arguably the most important skill a young professional can have today and one that many do not. The digital age has turned college students into social media machines, with a cellphone in hand and a laptop within reach. While this keeps us in constant communication, it hinders our ability to communicate face-to-face.

But humanities courses -— so tiny that they invariably become heated discussions masked as ''seminars" — force students out of their comfort zones. Didn't do the reading? Too bad. You'll have to discuss it anyway.

And teachers in the humanities will confront you if you get something wrong. I had never seen a student cry in class until my junior year, when one of my professors stopped a young woman in the middle of her presentation and asked, "Where did you get that information from? It's all wrong."

Finally, there is the often-cited but hard-to-measure ''critical thinking.'' The humanities are all about making connections, figuring out why one thing is the way it is and how that relates to something else. And it just so happens that employers are more interested in critical thinking skills than in college majors, according to a 2013 survey.

But what about the nagging voice in the back of your head that constantly asks, "How am I going to support myself?"

The issue isn't in the numbers, it's in the argument. Humanities don't come out on top of studies that track salaries by major. But many of the life skills learned in a humanities classroom are transferable to the most lucrative professions.

If salary is important to you, make that your goal. But it doesn't have to be your major.

Elizabeth Djinis is a rising senior at Duke University and a Tampa Bay Times intern.