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A friend of mine posted an interesting article on facebook today - “Honing the mind and nurturing the soul: why the humanities are underrated”. The piece is written by Professor Steven Schwartz, a distinguished academic currently residing at Oxford University after holding Vice Chancellor positions in Australia and the UK.

The article tells of Schwartz seeing the return of mature age students to university, not to study a doctorate in accounting or business, but the arts and humanities. As he put it, these students were returning to “fulfil a life-long desire to immerse themselves in the arts or humanities” after years in another profession. Schwartz makes the point that you do not need to make money to then spend it later in life - doing the ‘degree they have always wanted to do’ - you can study the humanities and make money.

It seems a strange thought at first. How do the humanities help you make money? You know, getting you a job. We’ve all got that annoying uncle or in-law or friend who plays devil’s advocate (or douchebag) when you reveal that you are studying French and Philosophy. They lean back and these words like this slide out of their mouth:

“Ah, what are the prospects for you after you finish your degree? I mean, latin is a dead language, what’s the point in studying that? Why study how to speak a language if you don’t want to be a translator? And Philosophy? What are you going to do, Philosophise? Is that even a word? Har har har har”.

Schwartz demonstrates the benefits of having a degree in humanities by listing a executives of companies like Yahoo and Google. Clearly they are doing well, and guess what? They have degrees or PhDs in Arts or Humanities.

“You go into the humanities to pursue your intellectual passion; and it just so happens, as a by-product, that you emerge as a desired commodity for industry. Such is the halo of human flourishing”

says Damon Horowitz, a Google Executive with a humanities PhD.

We start to see that maybe these degrees teach you something other than how to conjugate ‘dead’ verbs back to life. They teach you how to write, how to communicate, how to argue. They teach you how to empathize, how to make ethical decisions, how to consider the needs of others. They teach you about decisions that have been made in the past and how they still affect the present.

Sure, you might not be able to directly apply all of that content that you have learnt, but what degree allows for that?

These skills allow you to retort to your uncle:

“I’d love to come up with something suitable witty and hilarious to shame you appropriately, but I’m fresh out right now. In answer to your question - is anyone ever FULLY certain about their prospects after their degree? Just because I’m not certain, this does not mean that it makes me less useful or employable…”

and then if you really want to you can cap it off with a Victor E. Frankl Quote:

”…Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way…”

Which might have appeared inappropriate now that you think about it, but it has probably confused your antagonist into introspection. It isn’t about the content that you learn, but the process; it’s the skills you obtain from a degree that make you an asset.

I guess this article just really resonated with me - I have an honours degree in Psychology, and I’m pursuing a PhD in Statistics. I have a general understanding of lots of statistics, but not the fine mathematical knowledge that elegantly underpins all of it. People are sometimes confused when I tell them that I’m doing a PhD in stats but don’t have the strong math background. But the reason I can do a PhD in an unfamiliar topic is because of the skills I obtained from my Psychology degree - establishing rapport and interpersonal communication, critical reasoning, and experimental design. My degree has taught me to teach myself, to solve problems, to stay organised, handle stress, and write well.

So this is for all of the kids out there who are studying and then having the mandatory existential crisis (totally normal, by the way). Stimulate your mind and study what you love - passion breeds success.

photo of dan