The Value of a Humanities Degree: Six Students' Views

Jackie Basu, Karmia Cao, Gregory Hertz, Julian Kusnadi, Miles Osgood, and Alex Romanczuk

June 05, 2011

Amid the clamor this past year surrounding the crisis in the humanities, the voices of two groups—colleges and professors—have dominated the debate. Some say the humanities are saving students; others say humanities students are wasting their time and money on their degrees. Only occasionally mentioned in those arguments are the students themselves.

So what do students have to say? Not much, so far—at least not publicly. Yet they face, on a personal level, the same economic and intellectual questions that colleges are now confronting: As the cost of an undergraduate education soars, does it make sense to invest one's future in the humanities? Does a humanities degree pay off, one way or another?

Three years ago, we were all freshmen in Stanford University's Structured Liberal Education program, a yearlong residential course that surveys the world's most important works of literature, art, theology, philosophy, and history. From there, each of us went on to major in some humanistic discipline. Now we are seniors, and with our eyes finally up from all the books, we face the specter of life after graduation.

What have we gained? What will we take with us when we leave? What is a major in the humanities worth? Should we measure worth by career utility or by some other value—cognitive, aesthetic, moral? By our skills or by our knowledge?

No doubt many students can attack those questions and reach the same breadth of benefits outside the humanities. At Stanford, many of our classmates are scientists, social scientists, and engineers, and we have great respect for and interest in their studies—not only for their work's clear practical applications but also for the ways in which those students grapple with the world. We argue that our education is just as significant, and just as irreplaceable, as theirs.

Alex Romanczuk, major in comparative literature and mathematics: I've derived no tangible benefits from my study of comparative literature. I have no intention of pursuing a graduate degree in the subject, and no employer will ever hire me because of my knowledge of early 20th-century German poetry. Hegel's dialectic won't feed a hungry child, and pretending to understand Finnegans Wake won't somehow give me the moral power to stop the evil scientists from unleashing their killer robots. To think so is dangerous, incorrect, and insulting. A comp-lit degree is really quite useless, which is exactly what I find so appealing.

Literature is beautiful, and even if it is nothing more, I study literature because of an insatiable desire to expose myself to beauty. I enjoy the moments of stillness that that beauty induces. I enjoy listening to myself in those moments.

Is dedicating 65 units of my Stanford career to cultivating stillness an arrogant, privileged, and irresponsible thing to do? Maybe. But it sure makes it easier to do those problem sets. You give to society what you gather in solitude. I've never understood why there's a tension between those who study useful things and those who study beautiful things. We can and should study both.

Miles Osgood, major in English and minor in classics: The stories are true: The closer I get to graduation—to an honors B.A. in English—the more I'm asked, "What are you going to do with that?" What bothers me about the question is not its wry concern for my working future, or even its implied dismissal of my academic past. What bothers me (honestly) is that it's always the same question, word for word.

The language of our world—where the Internet provides our reading, television our theater, and advertising our art—has grown increasingly dependent on stock phrases. I read, write, and study literature in large part because its more careful language can order this world of chance events into scenes and narratives of heightened form and significance. Our trite, repeated lines order the world too, but only by flattening it.

Still, just as any red-blooded English major should bristle at the canned question above, any cold-blooded English major might still take a closer look at the contents. I have no doubt that I'll find something "to do" with the skills I've acquired. Just like any other humanities student, I routinely condense hundreds of pages to their salient points of interest for a given subject, problem, or context. Every weekday, I debate the details of projects and their surrounding arguments in a conference setting. I write clearly and persuasively.

But behind the shadow of "doing," unemphasized in the question's inflection, is that far more telling verb, "going." This is the central question at hand: Should we judge the success of our university educations for what we are "going to" next, or for what we've become?

When I look at my final transcript in June, I won't be looking at a résumé. I'll be looking at the classes that taught me who to be, what to want, and why it matters. Some college students pick their majors having planned from the start what they're "going to do with that," but English is not a "that," and that's why I picked it.

Gregory Hertz, philosophy major: Throughout my life, people have tried to convince me to stop thinking—but they offer reasons. People think that philosophy is not relevant—but they have philosophies of their own that determine their emotions and actions.

Thinking shapes our experience of the world, and philosophy is just high-quality, high-quantity thinking. When we do anything, we would be wise to ask why we are doing it.

People think that philosophy doesn't offer answers. Answerless questions shouldn't be ignored. They should be shown to contain false assumptions, or why they are beyond human cognition.

We confront the baffling: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is that something this, and not something else?

What could be more interesting than those questions?

Jackie Basu, history major and classics minor: Am I living the right life? Nietzsche framed that seemingly simple question with a thought experiment: If you were told that you would spend the rest of time repeating this life again, exactly as it was, how would you react? Would you be content or terrified? After all, a "good life" could be one of little risk, maximal comfort, and minimal pain—certainly pleasant enough to repeat. A risk-taking life, though more glorious, is also more uncertain: Spills are an inevitable cost of striving. Is it worth taking those falls and bruises for all eternity?

Entering the university as a published scientist, I was on a well-marked path to a reassuringly risk-free career. However, somewhere along the line, a new set of questions presented itself, quietly at first, then insistently: questions from the global community relating to collective action, the rule of law, rhetoric, state-building, and state failure. Pursuing them, I could still process data and deduce paradigms, but my data set turned textual, deriving from history, literature, philosophy, and the classics.

The end point of my study is not clear; no laboratory awaits me after I graduate. That is the inherent challenge of the humanities life: demonstrating the pragmatic, productive value of my work. I do know, however, that the methods of analysis I've honed will be the tools I bring to bear upon my undergraduate honors thesis. 

 Most importantly, I know that I have taken the courageous path toward the striving life. Though I lost the security of a predetermined career, I've gained the freedom to mold myself a new one. This is a life I am proud of, that I claim as my own. And when Nietzsche tells me to do it again, ad infinitum, I will certainly stand by my choice.

Julian Kusnadi, philosophy and religious-studies major and human-biology minor: Anyone committed to the authority of human rationality ought also to concede its limits at an individual level. From the relatively modest admission that any individual human mind has limits, two categories emerge: what one can rationally explain and what one cannot. The existence of the latter compels many people to turn—upwards, inwards, or nowhere in particular—to the transcendent in their search for a different authoritative system that can make sense of the unexplained.

Religion generally intends to use rationally accessible language and concepts. However, I argue that religion's indisputable appeal and near omnipresence in recorded history come from the spaces in between what reason understands. Poetry and music use conventional words and sounds to create profound experiences; those experiences can be rationally explained at a conventional level, but to do so misses the point of poetry and music. In the same way, it would be reductionist to explain religion exclusively through its constituent, rationally explainable parts.

Even in a modern world enamored with rationality, individual and global conflicts that may have rationally explainable motivations—political or economic ones, for example—often involve religious dimensions. Familiar, rational words and arguments may be used to explain religious belief, but if religion essentially involves that which transcends rationality, justifications based on religious belief are likewise not exclusively limited to what reason can explain.

The stakes of religious belief are ultimate, and the convictions that these stakes inspire become justifications for individual and collective actions. Given the powerful force and pervasiveness of religious conviction, especially with its foundation outside rationality, we should hardly be surprised to find religion embedded in modern global issues. Addressing the profound issues raised in religious studies may, indeed, be of similarly ultimate consequence for the future of our modern global village. Surely those stakes warrant the humble, humanistic study of what essentially lies beyond reason's authority.

Karmia Cao, English major with a concentration in creative writing: The week I declared my major in creative writing, an old friend told me that she had purchased a gift for me: a button pin that reads, "I majored in English. Would you like some fries with that?"

Yet I have found creative writing to be a sanctuary in the humanities, an observatory of the human conscious. In my studies the objectives are not, as the pin from my friend suggests, to view the world with hypercritical eyes, affect a petty-witty or inaccessible style, or brace oneself for a life of mismatched, unsatisfactory careers. I am a student of the humanities because I stand by what G.K. Chesterton foresaw as the "cult of progress," in which misguided societies stumble down a dangerously futuristic road while wearing blinders that exclude a vision for self-knowledge, ethics, history, cultural understanding, and the excavation of the resource-rich human mind. Though I admit that not having a formulaic, secure career trajectory can be daunting, I am also reminded that the science of "the more"—more convenience, more speed—is hollow and hollowing without cognizance and interpretation. What we do springs forth from who we are.

I study the humanities to become a cartographer of histories, a physician of social inequity, and a rocketeer of cultural fluidity. To stand truly independent and informed. And if I succeed, I will leave that button on my mantelpiece. And ketchup beside.