The importance of valuing the humanities

Op-eds Opinions

Thoughts on the decline of a “human” education

In 2017, the Globe and Mail issued an article surrounding the steady decline of the humanities in Canadian universities. Their statistics stated that participation in fields such as English and history were down by six percent in 2015. Statistics Canada findings indicate that enrolment in these programs is diminishing. Moreover, humanities majors starting out in their career initially earn on average $20 000 less than their STEM counterparts. Hundreds of other articles denounce the study of the humanities as a pursuit of “worthlessness” or even “elitism.” So then, what can we gather from these unsettling figures? Why do some people continue to pursue these studies in an unsteady job market? And most importantly, how can we justify the value of the humanities in an ever changing world? 

The humanities or humanitas harkens from ancient Greece to the Renaissance, and encompasses the study of human society and its culture. Today, the humanities have bearings in concerns of social justice, ethical debates, global communications, and revitalizing language. Up until the end of the 19th century, studying subjects such as literature was seen as a substantive part of creating a well-rounded individual within a liberal education. What has changed since then? According to Dr. Virgina Davis of the University of London, the decline of the humanities has its roots in the wake of the Second World War and the Cold War, where the sciences advanced further as “crucial for national survival and success.” This is where the modern “value” debate for the humanities began. Most definitely, this reasoning is concerned with a market-consumer discourse. What is seen as having a direct economic benefit is prioritized over subjects that do not lead as clearly to the job market.

At the same time, there are optimistic statistics that indicate the benefits of obtaining a humanities degree. A University of Ottawa study has shown that careers in the humanities demonstrate steadily rising incomes in irregular economic cycles in comparison to careers in engineering and computer science. Additionally, a follow-up study found that over a decade, a given humanities cohort did earn less money than science majors, but in comparison, their incomes rose at very similar rates. Interestingly, Universities Canada identifies that the social sciences and humanities constitute over half of the bachelor’s degrees of professional leaders across sectors and countries. Statistics Canada even states that on average, history majors earn $65 000 annually. 

In a report called “Humans Wanted,” the Royal Bank of Canada, calls for “skills such as critical thinking, social perceptiveness, and complex problem solving to remain competitive and resilient in the labour market” — all skills that humanities majors are well trained to do.

“Today’s labour market is rapidly changing, and calls for people with strong foundational skills, creativity, and the ability to adapt — qualities that humanities students often bring,” said Dr. Allison Benner, Humanities Co-op Coordinator. 

 Even though the humanities have shrunk in comparison to other fields of study, it still continues to impact the larger global community through research, engagement, and modes of creative exploration.

At UVic, the humanities provoke critical inquiry, engage myriad voices, enrich human dignity, and inspire innovative expression. 

“The humanities have a key social role in talking about the importance of the human,” said Dr. Lisa Surridge, a UVic English professor. “This role becomes all the more imperative in a moment of technological change and where human dignity is under threat. Our faculty’s research emphasizes preserving and protecting human dignity.”

A quick glance at UVic’s Annual Reports of the Humanities uncovers the importance of understanding and engaging with these different perspectives, communities, and legacies at work. Take for example, uncovering Carl Lutz’s role against the Holocaust by Charlotte Schallié, or revealing fundamentalist sources behind fake news by Dr. Christopher Douglas. 

The humanities encapsulates the study of human experience through the eyes of humanity itself. Its continued value is shown through an ever-changing participation in reshaping the global community at large. Through ingenuity, respect, and passion, the humanities remain an integral part of our universities and most importantly, our world.