Dangerous to ignore: why smart employers value the humanities
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Dangerous to ignore: why smart employers value the humanities

Long the brunt of derision, underestimation and underfunding, the humanities seem constantly to be heard arguing for their worth and fighting for their place at the academic table.

No matter how many arguments are made for the importance of law, languages, history and other such disciplines as instigators of critical thinking and exploration of the human experience, or how loudly academics shout about the importance of ethics and communication when tackling global issues (all valid points), the question fixed to the tip of university applicants’ tongues remains: when pitted against their STEM-literate contemporaries, are humanities graduates employable?

The short answer? Yes- and more than many realise.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, President of the Singapore-based Yale-NUS College Pericles Lewis argues that the US economy is constructed on the innovation and imagination of humanities graduates- and, consequently, that canny employers recognise their immense value.

“By studying the humanities…you learn the ability to think creatively, to write and to communicate well.  There are a lot of very distinguished leaders in business, government and non-profit organisations who credit their training- whether it’s in philosophy, history, literature or art history- as part of why they have been so successful.”

Scientific research, engineering expertise and statistical literacy are all hugely important- but neither societies nor their economies can function successfully without drawing from a range of complementary skill sets. How would countries operate without legal systems; without the linguists responsible for interpreting and translating political discussions and scientific conferences; or without the historians responsible for exploring the past events from which we must learn and progress?

Employers across the globe cry out for creative individuals with the ability to think and speak quickly, articulately and analytically- and, perhaps most importantly, the capacity to consider multiple conflicting arguments. Humanities graduates tick all of these boxes. They have, after all, spent their university careers not pouring fruitlessly through books on what King Henry VIII was wearing on a certain day or learning the rudest French words they could find, but developing the holy grail of higher education: highly marketable, transferable skills.

In an interview with Fast Company, Steve Yi, CEO of web advertising platform MediaAlpha, voiced his belief in the importance of the humanities and liberal arts train students to thrive within competitive industries as they cultivate understanding of subjectivity and ambiguity, which are invaluable within a corporate sphere in which there is rarely only one solution to a problem.

“In the dynamic environment of the technology sector, “Yi says, “there is not typically one right answer when you make decisions. There are just different shades of how correct you might be.”

Yi adds that his interdisciplinary degree in East Asian Studies at Harvard encouraged him to approach every issue from multiple perspectives.

“It’s awfully similar to viewing our organisation and our marketplace from different points of view, quickly shifting gears from sales to technology to marketing,” he comments. “I need to synthesise these perspectives to decide where we need to go as a company.”

Danielle Sheer, the vice president of cloud back-up service Carbonite, supports Yi’s view, commenting to Fast Company that she thanks her qualification in existential philosophy from George Washington University for setting her apart from her technically-trained co-workers, who have been educated to assume that there is always only one correct answer.

“I don’t believe there is one answer for everything”, she said. “That makes me a very unusual member of [the business]. I always consider a plethora of different options and outcomes in every situation.”

The message for the next generation of students, then, is clear. While the value of education in STEM disciplines, with its focus on reason, logic and fact, is indisputable, a workforce skilled in these subjects alone would be hugely limited- and employers realise this. The humanities encourage students to discuss multiple scenarios, communicate eloquently and think flexibly; fundamentally, they drive them to bring an alternative point of view- whether relating to science, literature, technology or publishing- to industries often saturated by specialists with little outside knowledge. Put simply, they are viewed as ‘workforce gold dust’ by businesses worldwide.

Georgia Nugent, a senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges, summarises employers’ requirement for graduates with a broader set of transferable skills neatly, saying:

“It’s a horrible irony that the very moment the world has become more complex, we’re encouraging our young people to be highly specialised in one task,” she says.

“We are doing a disservice to young people by telling them that life is a straight path. The [humanities] are still relevant because they prepare students to be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances.”

Read on to learn about institutions which offer world-class humanities tuition:

Founded in 1881 by the noted Dundee philanthropist Miss Mary Ann Baxter, the University of Dundee was originally created to facilitate “the education of persons of both sexes and the study of Science, Literature and the Fine Arts.” In its early years, the institution was a constituent member of the ancient University of St. Andrews, situated just twenty miles away.  It retains close links with St. Andrews today. Since gaining independence in 1967, the University of Dundee has gone from strength to strength, now topping the league tables in a range of subjects, including life sciences, medicine and fine arts. Read the full profile.

The University of Wolverhampton welcomes hundreds of international students each year, all of whom either join its friendly community in the heart of England or enrol on its world-class degree courses through its partner institutions overseas. The University currently hosts students from more than 100 nations across its four UK campuses or partner institutions, its vibrant international community enhancing the already diverse cultural make-up of the University, city and region. For those who wish to explore the rest of the UK, Wolverhampton is close to local, national and international transport links, meaning that getting around is easy; Birmingham International Airport is a mere 30 minutes’ journey away. Read the full profile.

The University of Melbourne, ranked 1st in Australia and 34th in the world in the prestigious Times Higher Education World University Rankings, offers its students an invaluably broad spectrum of course options and provides them with the opportunity to learn from renowned researchers and industry leaders. Given its combination of flexible learning options, dedication to equal opportunities and matchless location in central Melbourne, the University is an excellent choice for students who are keen to kick-start prosperous futures. Committed to innovation and community engagement, the University’s Faculty of Arts runs programs as diverse as Indigenous Studies and Politics, which complement more vocationally-orientated options such as Journalism, Cultural Conservation and Criminology.

The University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) has an outstanding reputation for research and teaching, and is located in one of the most spectacular higher education settings in the country. The University provides unrivalled opportunities for undergraduate and postgraduate students across a wide range of academic programs. All undergraduates at UCSC are affiliated with one of the institution’s colleges, the core courses of which provide a common academic base for first year and transfer students. Each college provides academic support, organizes student activities, and sponsors events that enhance the intellectual and social life of the campus in addition to housing students in small-scale residential communities.

Ranked among the top three universities in New Zealand, Massey University offers its students a stimulating, internationally-acclaimed education which facilitates professional prosperity following their graduation. Massey University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences offers unique, carefully crafted courses which have been developed to ensure that students receive comprehensive, advanced tuition in their chosen discipline. A progressive, research-led institution, Massey hosts a thriving student body of approximately 36,000 students across its three campuses in Auckland, Palmerston North and Wellington and is proud to house not only the prestigious Massey School of Design but also one of the largest business schools in the country.