When I lost my job two years ago, I ended a long-term career with a bachelor’s degree that included classes in calculus, physics, chemistry and psychology, all required for a degree in Safety Sciences. I had started college with no chosen major, taking general education requirements just to get my feet wet. When I spotted Safety 101, I decided to take it, more out of curiosity than sincere interest, and after a semester realized I had found my calling.
Fast-forward 20 years and here I am as a graduate student in humanities. I had no idea what “humanities” was or what I could do with a degree in it. After skimming through course titles like “Myths Across Cultures,” “Racism, Anti-semitism and Genocide in the Modern Age,” and “The Gothic Tradition,” I was thrilled and wanted to learn more. After spending months sending out resumes for safety-related jobs with little to no response, I came to the conclusion that enrolling in the humanities program was an opportunity for me to finally exercise the right side of my brain, which had been ignored for far too long.
The general focus of humanities is to investigate the construct of human concerns, exploring and explaining the human experience. The college I attend, Mount St. Mary’s, defines it as learning to understand the connection between “the Individual, the Community, and the World,” and includes courses in English, history, cultural studies, religion, philosophy and creative writing. As I spoke with my advisor and started taking classes, I realized the opportunities for this degree were endless and the coursework was anything but dull. I never envisioned myself taking a class on James Joyce, but I loved it. Studying the Cathars as part of a travel study course to the south of France was an opportunity that surpassed any I had as Regional Director of a Fortune 100 company, especially climbing to the top of one of the few remaining medieval castles in the country, Chateau de Queribus. It was certainly more satisfying than climbing the corporate ladder.
So what kind of careers can a degree in humanities offer? In humanities, the potential careers include being an editor, copywriter or teacher, not to mention the option of becoming a screenwriter, playwright, political commentator or journalist. As part of my studies, I’m writing a novel and a screenplay, in addition to having written a few stories for children’s picture books. The chances of becoming a famous novelist or children’s author are slim, but that wasn’t my original goal anyway. I am passionate about writing and that’s what I’m doing. I wanted to expand my critical thinking skills and I’m doing that too.
By now you’re probably asking, “What about the salary?” Of course that’s a concern, especially if you have mounting student loans like I do. But I know that many employers prefer to hire someone with a diverse education compared to someone with only one area of expertise. My next boss will probably not know that I studied the religious conflict of the Crusades, but might appreciate what I know about other cultures and send me to work in Europe. They won’t care about the countless hours I spent doing research and reading books by Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg, but will certainly appreciate my ability to write a coherent paragraph and apply critical thinking skills to solve a problem.
My salary probably won’t be six figures, but then, no degree can promise that. Nor does a degree guarantee a lifelong career and steady income like it may have in the past. If your ultimate goal is to get rich, then you should just as well try your luck in Vegas instead of wasting money on higher learning. The point of studying literature or religion is to free ourselves from the paradigms in which we live and learn to be better global citizens. By studying other cultures, we improve our ability to relate to diverse populations. By studying different literary genres, we learn how to identify a specific audience and clearly express ourselves. By studying different religions, we learn to tolerate those whose beliefs don’t coincide with our own. These are skills that apply to any industry, any position, anywhere in the world. These are skills that can be learned by studying humanities.
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