Professor Michelle Burnham
In a recent article titled “Why I Want My Kids to Major in English,” psychology professor James Golden explains that “the greatest promise and purpose of a college degree” is not job readiness but career readiness, which is best gained by studying humanities fields like English.
The distinction between job and career skills is an important one in our current moment, when so many students and their parents are under the mistaken—and harmful—assumption that one’s college major somehow determines one’s future career. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The value of humanitites degrees was made abundantly clear by the participants in a Spring 2016 panel discussion, “What Careers Can You Pursue With a Humanities Major?” The panel featured five SCU humanities alumni: Arneil Villena (English ’06), a technical writer and user education specialist at Google; Sara Martineau (Philosophy ‘12), a brand marketing manager at Pinterest; Guy Marzorati (History ‘13), producer for KQED’s California Report; Whitney Vellequette (French ‘11), senior business analyst at Accenture; and Christina Sheils (Art History ‘13), art program coordinator at Bay Area Discovery Museum. All five described how their humanities degrees led them to satisfying and successful careers.
The experiences of these Broncos are echoed by many employers, who insist that humanities majors are superior problem solvers, collaborators, thinkers, writers, and communicators. These are the kinds of career skills that can’t be learned on the job. That’s why when Google announced plans to add 6000 new employees to their company, they estimated that 5000 of those hires would be humanities majors. Moreover, these humanities-based skills in writing, research, and problem solving are also portable across careers (especially valuable today, when most will change careers at least three times), and they don’t expire as many job-specific skills do over time. This is why humanities majors are served both professionally and financially by their liberal arts education. While engineers may earn more right out of college, salaries of humanities majors catch up over time and often outpace those of engineers. But the payoff isn’t just individual. Studies also show that over the long term students who major in the humanities disproportionately serve humanity and the greater social good.
James Golden reminds us that
Current and/or past CEOs of companies such as Starbucks, FedEx, YouTube, Apple, Disney, Facebook, HBO, American Express and IBM learned to be leaders, critical thinkers and innovators not by learning the skills to do a job, but instead, the skills required to create or reimagine entire industries. Many of these successful leaders earned their undergraduate degrees in liberal arts programs such as English, [where they learned] . . . the complexities and interrelatedness of knowledge and how best to capitalize on the potential not simply of knowing the answers, but rather knowing what questions need to be asked.
Should everyone major in English, or some other field in the humanities? Of course not. Students should major in what they are passionate about, so they have the chance to figure out, for themselves, which questions most need to be asked as well as gain the tolls to answer them. But English is one great place to begin!