Press Review: Articulating the Value of Undergraduate Humanities Education for Confronting the Crises of the Moment

Our Study the Humanities toolkit includes collections of compelling articles published in popular publications on the value of the humanities, offering humanities advocates a set of ready-made, accessible arguments to share with prospective students and those who influence their decision-making. We update these article collections periodically, taking stock of trends in coverage of undergraduate humanities education in the popular press.

When we first built the compelling article collection in 2017, we found a plethora of articles confronting misleading myths about humanities career prospects with data on humanities major career outcomes, pieces outlining a wide range of viable career pathways for humanities majors, and stories of rising demand for humanities skills in particular sectors like medicine, business, and big tech. We also found profiles of and testimony from leaders in these fields outlining the value of a humanities education. When we updated the article library in 2019, we generally found more of the same. Whatever the approach taken, arguments generally revolved around the value of a degree in the humanities amidst widespread preoccupation with educational ROI, implicitly or explicitly responding to competing articles attacking the humanities on these grounds.  

The steady stream of these kinds of articles that appeared regularly in publications ranging from national newspapers (The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe) to business publications (Forbes, Fast Company, MarketWatch, Quartz) to cultural periodicals (The Atlantic, The New Republic, Pacific Standard) slowed to a trickle after March 2020. While Forbes has continued to publish on these themes, many other popular publications seem to have been too preoccupied with responding to accelerating and overlapping environmental, political, racial justice, and public health crises to devote much space to either reinforcing or confronting misconceptions concerning humanities majors’ career prospects.  

At the same time, these overlapping crises have created opportunities for arguments that illustrate the practical, personal, and social value of humanistic study all in the same breath. We’ve seen more articles on how the humanities offer insights for repairing our broken political discourse, guard against authoritarian impulses, and promote healthier models for civic engagement. Authors have illustrated how the humanities help us to address major problems like racial injustice, sexual abuse, invisible wounds inflicting our veterans, and medical inequities and shortcomings illuminated by the pandemic. And some have pointed to lack of investment in the humanities as a contributing factor to these overlapping crises.

We suspect that these trends in the popular press reflect a broader cultural shift toward greater receptivity to arguments underscoring the social and personal value of studying the humanities as an undergraduate. Indeed, some have already begun to suggest that such a shift might already be drawing more undergraduates to the humanities. 

For humanities advocates, it’s a signal that we can play offense as well as defense. In the context of rising higher education costs and vast economic uncertainty, we must continue to confront students’ and parents’ anxieties and misconceptions concerning the economic viability of a degree in the humanities. At the same time, the events of the past 18 months have driven home that there is more to ROI than an individual’s immediate post-graduation income. It’s increasingly clear how desperately we need to make the kind of broad-minded investments in our individual and collective futures that humanistic study entails. 

In the months ahead, we will continue to update the Study the Humanities toolkit, revising our synthetic arguments and beefing up their supporting evidence—including student responses to innovative curricula collected through our impact research partnerships. We aim to make a stronger case for how the humanities strengthen our democracy, mend our social wounds, and humanize our institutions for the benefit of all, while continuing to highlight humanities majors’ impressive career outcomes amidst widespread and increasing demand for humanities skills. Stay tuned for more updates!

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