Are Humanities Subjects – And Humanities Students – Doomed?


Are humanities subjects – and humanities students – doomed? – 1% Extra Article – Rob Darke

“We should cheer decline of humanities degrees.”

So read the headline of a piece by Emma Duncan in The Times. Duncan, who notably studied Politics and Economics at Oxford, thinks that the decline in the number of students enrolling in humanities degrees is a societal positive. And her reasoning is sound. She says that the humanities fail to engender in their students sufficient practical skills to be both employable once they graduate, and able to thrive once they’re part of the workforce. The lack of skills today’s humanities graduates are instilled with and the subsequent lack of employment they are able to find as a result is, she says, why so many of today’s youth feel betrayed by their elders (she acknowledges that the bleak state of today’s housing market is also a factor) [1].

It’s a provocative piece, featuring statements like, “Literature is lovely stuff but it’s not a way to earn your bread,” that make one suspect it is deliberately so. It ignited a furious backlash from some corners of the internet and an equally furious backlash to the backlash from others. Such are the times we live in. But Duncan’s argument is nothing new. This debate has been raging since well before her own student days, though the merit of the arguments on each side does tend to depend on the context of the times in which the debate is taking place. The shifting state of employment rates and the in-vogue professional skills of the era are always going to have an impact.

In lieu of the topic’s re-emergence in the column circuit, it’s worth investigating what humanities offer, what students and employers want from a University education, and whether things are really moving in the right direction or the wrong one.

Humanities graduates: Penniless and unskilled?

Duncan argues that, “the people who are struggling are those in nice, fluffy jobs like publishing and the creative arts, and in the caring professions” [2]. Leaving caring aside, as this falls outside of the remit of humanities, Duncan is right that humanities and social science graduates are less well off than their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) studying counterparts. But not by much.

STEM subjects are generally considered to be the crème de la crème of the practical degrees, all-but guaranteeing jobs in engineering, the finance sector, and a whole other heap of other lucrative industries. In the UK, however, where Duncan’s article was focused, STEM graduates earn on average £38,272 a year compared with humanities and social science graduates’ £35,360 [3]. The difference is useful cash in the pocket, most certainly, but not such a striking distance apart that STEM might be seen as the educational pinnacle while the humanities are dragged kicking and screaming to the pedagogical chopping block. Similarly in the US, for those aged 25-34, the unemployment rate of those with a humanities degree is 4%. For those with an engineering or business degree? A little more than 3% [4]. The vigour of the anti-humanities debate doesn’t seem to accurately reflect the marginality of these differentials.

Meanwhile, creative industries represent 5.6% of the UK’s GDP. The UK is the largest exporter of books in the world, in large part because of the strength of its publishing industry, and the creative industries are not only growing, but doing so at a faster rate than the economy as a whole [5]

In other words, the humanities are fine. Except, as is plainly apparent to anyone with skin in the game, that’s not really true. For all the detractors of Duncan’s article there is a reason that she wrote it, as well as something intrinsically recognisable in the notion at its core. While we may disagree that the decline in humanities is something worth cheering about, we do understand that the decline she so celebrates is real and worsening. The chances are that everyone reading this either knows a struggling humanities graduate or is one themselves.

A striking statistic from Duncan’s piece notes that, “Looking at higher education as an investment, the Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates that the return for men on a degree in economics and medicine is about £500,000, for English it is zero and for creative arts it is negative” [6]. Meanwhile, a recent report from the British Academy found that, “English Studies undergraduate students domiciled in England fell by 29% between 2012 and 2021” [7].

In the UK, there has been a 20% drop in students taking A-levels in English and a 15% decline in the arts [8]. Across the pond, a 2018 piece in the Atlantic found that the number of University History majors was “down about 45 percent from its 2007 peak, while the number of English majors has fallen by nearly half since the late 1990s” [9]. The piece also noted that the decline was “nearly as strong at schools where student debt is almost nonexistent, like Princeton University (down 28 percent) and the College of the Ozarks (down 44 percent).” In other words, rising tuition fees were not a factor, or at least not a strong one, in these numbers.

Why is it then that we’re seeing such a drop off in the number of students wanting to pursue a degree in the humanities, especially if the unemployment and starting salary figures are as closely aligned as the stats suggest?

What you should be doing…

In the aforementioned Atlantic article, the author, Benjamin Schmidt, notes that in the US there was a large-scale drop off in the number of humanities majors in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Schimidt argues that in the wake of the crisis, “students seem to have shifted their view of what they should be studying—in a largely misguided effort to enhance their chances on the job market” [10].

It’s not hard to understand why students would take such an action, or to think that a similar phenomenon is not underway in the wake of the twin crises of Covid and the cost of living. People know that the economy isn’t in great shape. They know that there are by an order of magnitude more graduates than ever before that they will soon be thrust into the real world to compete with. And they know – or think they know – that STEM subjects offer a level of security that more artistic ventures do not. In large part because that’s what people in positions of power have told them.

Put plainly, Schmidt argues that, “Students aren’t fleeing degrees with poor job prospects. They’re fleeing humanities and related fields specifically because they think they have poor job prospects” [11]. The gulf between the real and the speculative here is vital, and damaging. As already noted, Duncan is offering nothing new in her argument other than an oddly fatalistic sense of glee. STEM equals rich, humanities equals poor. That’s the basic conception underpinning most of the public’s school of thought on this matter. But as has already been shown, the numbers on that don’t quite stack up.

One might argue that to attribute such enormous declines in the numbers of humanities students purely to a collective attitudinal miscalculation is short-sighted. To counter that, it would be worth running an experiment in which students were able to sign up to a University where tuition was free and every first-year student had a guaranteed job lined up after education. Under these favourable circumstances, would students still be shunning the humanities or would it turn out that the cost and perceived lack of employability is the real problem? In such a scenario, given that we’ve already ruled out the cost being a key factor, we could say with some credibility that the perceived lack of employability a humanities degree offers was the number one reason for the declining numbers.

Thankfully, we don’t need to run such an experiment as these institutions already exist in the form of US military service academies. Students are granted free tuition and a guaranteed job within the US military upon graduation. And what do the numbers show? That at West Point, Annapolis and Colorado Springs, humanities majors were at roughly the same level in 2018 as they were in 2008 [12]. They were not affected by the colossal drop-offs in History and English majors that were noted earlier in the article.

Hard skills vs Soft skills

Why someone might think a STEM subject offers more than a humanities one is obvious. One offers hard skills, the other soft. STEM students have something tangible to show for their hard work, whether that’s in the form of lab skills or a mastery of a certain equipment. Stand that up against an English literature graduate and it may look like one has received much more bang for their buck through the University experience than the other. In this regard Duncan’s argument is entirely justified. Humanities students aren’t being taught hard, practical skills that set them up for the workplace. But a skill doesn’t have to be part to be practical. Indeed, to focus only on hard skills is to massively undervalue the soft skills one learns in the humanities and the vital role they play in a real-life professional environment. Not to mention, as we will show in a moment, what they offer fiscally.

Humanities students are taught to think critically, to engage with arguments and frame their own, to deal with people and empathise with a variety of viewpoints. In stark contrast to scientific or mathematical endeavours, it is far more important in the humanities to be able to step back and understand a range of possible answers, acknowledging the merits and flaws in each, than to arrive at a single, binary, immovable conclusion. As Karan Bilimoria, a member of the House of Lords and Chancellor of the University of Birmingham has said on the subject, “Anyone who thinks [humanities] subjects are of low value [doesn’t] know what they are talking about…They provide many transferable skills — analytical, communication, written — that help students to take on a range of jobs” [13].

James Cole, a software engineer in Bath, wrote to The Guardian in response to Sheffield Hallam’s announcement that they would be dropping their English Literature course. He agreed that English Literature offered something vital, even in his much more technical line of work, saying:

English Literature degrees teach criticism, a form of analysis that suits the workplace very well. What is the truth in a given situation, how does it tie into wider themes, and how can I best communicate that? Deep reading skills, mental organisation, patience. Studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) doesn’t develop these skills in the same way, and I should know because I also have an MPhil in computer science. Almost none of my colleagues have Humanities degrees, and it shows. [14]

Sheffield Hallam

Writing in the journal Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, Eliza F. Kent argues similarly, saying that: “the most important resource necessary to succeed in today’s competitive marketplace is a clear, eloquent, impassioned voice. The learning exercises at the foundation of excellent humanities-based education may appear to lack any utilitarian benefit, but their long-term effect is the development of each student’s individual voice, which is priceless” [15].

Soft skills: Money in the bank

In direct contrast to the many arguments that humanities are a one-way ticket to poverty, studies have shown that, due to their superior soft-skills, including diplomacy and people-management, humanities graduates often go on to find themselves in positions of leadership. 15% of all humanities graduates in the US go on to management positions (more than go into any other role) [16]. Meanwhile, a recent study of 1,700 people from 30 countries found that the majority of those in leadership positions had either a social sciences or humanities degree – this was especially true of leaders under 45 years of age [17]. Perhaps poverty does not this way lie after all.

The Future

What very few University degrees or workplaces are currently prepared for is the colossal impact AI is going to have on the kind of jobs that earn the most money, the kind that can be replaced, and the kind of skills students graduating into an AI-integrated workforce will need to be armed with. The likelihood that today’s students in any sphere are appropriately prepared for the wide scale changes ahead is slim. That’s probably doubly true for the aging and aged existing members of the workforce, who are generally likely to be less technologically articulate than their younger, tech-savvy counterparts.

Some people who do know about AI’s likely impact going forward are Brad Smith and Harry Shum, top-level executives at Microsoft who wrote in their book, The Future Computed, that:

As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions. [18]

Brad Smith and Harry Shum

Emma Duncan may be cheering on the demise of the humanities for the time being, then. But it seems like the soft-skilled graduates of tomorrow may end up having the last laugh.
















[15] Kent, E. F. (2012). What are you going to do with a degree in that?: Arguing for the humanities in an era of efficiency. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 11(3), 273–284.