Haters Gonna Hate (on the Humanities)

by | Apr 10, 2019

At the beginning of every semester, I ask my undergraduate history students the same question: “How many of you hate history?” I watch as the students look around at each other nervously, but sure enough, a couple of hands slowly raise into the air. After a few more seconds and a promise that they won’t fail the class for their honesty, nearly every student has a hand up.

Throughout the semester, I lecture and foster discussions on the Enlightenment thinkers of the French Revolution, the re-admittance of the Southern states during the Reconstruction, and the origins of the Cold War. But I also aim to help my students hate history just a little bit less than they do on that first day of class.

Many of my students major in business- or STEM-related fields. Scattered among them are the rare film studies, English, or geography enthusiasts. And I get it – in a society that has increasingly placed emphasis on STEM disciplines and in a job market that is saturated with increasingly educated applicants, students want to choose a field that will provide the most stability in the future. With the average cost of attending college increasing every year, it makes sense that students want (and need) their degrees to pay off, literally and metaphorically.

I studied journalism and history as an undergraduate, and history as a graduate student. I know what the critics say. The humanities are becoming more and more irrelevant; they have no purpose. Humanities students are not immediately employable. It’s “safer” to major in a field that puts you on a specific career path. The humanities are in crisis.

At first glance, it’s easy to make these claims. But the evidence says otherwise. A 2012 survey showed that of 642 U.S.-born CEOs and Heads of Product Engineering, nearly 60% had degrees in the humanities. A study of the 100 Financial Times Stock Exchange companies’ CEOs showed that 34% had a humanities background, while 31% had a science or technology background.

Microsoft president Brad Smith and EVP of AI and research Harry Shum wrote recently: “As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.”

So, what skills do the humanities teach you?

  1. Empathy and understanding others through their language, history, and culture.
  2. Processing large amounts of data and information.
  3. Analyzing subjective, complex, and imperfect information critically and logically.
  4. Thinking creatively to ask questions about the world and solve problems.
  5. Approaching problems and information from multiple disciplines and perspectives.
  6. Communicating clearly and effectively.
  7. Developing strong interpersonal and intrapersonal skills.

The number one reason my students hate history is that it pushes them outside of their comfort zone. In their calculus and chemistry classes, they know that there’s a right answer and that every other answer is wrong. The humanities don’t work like that. The humanities aren’t about memorizing facts, formulas, and theories. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer – it’s about making a claim, making connections between events and people, supporting those claims and connections with evidence, and effectively communicating your conclusions. And this drives students crazy. They want to be told what the right answer is, to look at the information like it’s as black and white as the pages they’re supposed to read.

After a 16 weeks of presentations, group discussions, and essays, I ask the same question on the last day of class as I do on the first: “How many of you hate history?” I wish I could say that not a single student raises a hand, but I can’t. There are always one or two. But when I ask those students if they hate history just a little bit less, they say yes.