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Opinion: It is Alright to Pursue the Humanities

Living in Silicon Valley, it can often feel as if value can only be derived from higher education by pursuing what is widely seen as the “practical”: engineering, medicine, business, computer science, the list goes on. This makes sense, as when you are surrounded by tech giants and venture capitalists, success is really most evident by way of a masters in data science or econometrics. But does it really have to be this way?

On a recently featured Freakonomics podcast, Steven Dubner, host and co-creator of the show, interviewed the current president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim. A spot reserved primarily for political scientists and macroeconomists, as Dubner points out, makes Kim an unusual selection. With a PhD in Anthropology from Harvard, as well as an M.D. from its medical school, Kim’s skill set is one not many can claim to share. Kim, someone who spent much of his higher education in the humanities, is succeeding at a level few can compare to. It threw me for a bit of a loop.

If the President of the World Bank, a man at one point named by Forbes as the 50th most powerful person in the world, spent most of his time in higher education studying anthropology, then surely, if I did the same, I would be fine. Whatever that means. Right?

History, essentially studying the interconnectedness of things, is something I’ve always truly enjoyed. The humanities are unique in providing this in an interesting medium, or at least one I find interesting. But, in the long term, the career options for someone graduating with a degree from any of the less practicable humanities sub disciplines are pretty slim pickings.

Archaeology? Good luck finding any digs, first and foremost, and since most contracts are short (like months short), even if you do find work, you’ll end up back in academia faster than you can say “near minimum wage, and living in North Dakota.”

Maybe History? More often than not, History majors end up as educators, and that is simply a risk I am unwilling to take.

How about Philosophy? Haha, good one.

Needless to say, work prospects for students of the humanities (save law) are pretty bleak. Sure, there is the possibility of becoming a museum curator, a part of a think tank, or find long-term field work, but that’s all these are. Possibilities. Plus, with the economy’s only consistency being its uncertainty, who knows what kind of job market we graduate in? Go get a degree in medicine, pursue something that is recession-proof. Enjoy that warm, suffocating feeling of security.

But then, what is the point? If you earn a degree in something you are not interested in, you have effectively resigned your life to an impulse. An impulse to make more money, to accumulate as much as possible, something rooted deep in our still-primitive minds.

We live in a day and age where practically every graduate can live a comfortable life. In 2016, the average college grad with a bachelor’s degree made $50,219 in their first year, and with the average cost of living for a American in their 20s being $27,194, there is clearly a reasonable quality of life that will come from most college degrees. So, if you can skip the M3, and settle for the Prius, or even better– for public transportation– then you might be alright.

And anyways, in what way does owning a fast car compensate for a meaningless career? A sub-four second 0-60 time can’t fill the hole that job dissatisfaction leaves. Leading a life where you can live every day feeling contented with a job well done in a field that actually interests you is leaps and bounds better than the former. And, don’t get me wrong, people can enjoy careers that are on the more lucrative side, but that too stems from genuine pleasure in, or at least appreciation for, what they do.

Getting back to Jim Yong Kim, my point is this: success can come in many forms, and surprisingly often through humanities majors. Steve Ells, CEO of Chipotle, majored in art history. Kenneth Chenault, CEO of AMEX, was a history major at Bowdoin. Even now, as I list who I see as successful, I realize that I forget that everyone’s interpretation of success is different.

Maybe making as much money as possible as quickly as possible isn’t important to you. The humanities may serve your needs perfectly, and reading this article was a waste of time. But, more likely though, you are like me, convinced that a path that doesn’t have a direct, tangible skill set is a risky and, frankly, wholly pointless one.

That is why you should take solace in these names. In our regionally-driven, startup-fueled vision of success, to have names like Kim, Ells, and Chenault gives me hope, for they are proof that in our very limited interpretation of success, one can succeed. They are the proof, or more honestly, a tool in helping to rationalize a pursuit of the humanities. But, to be fair, with the critical thinking skills you gain from the humanities, practically any career is a viable one.

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