For National Arts and Humanities month, I’ve discussed some of the benefits of a major in the humanities and how to actualize these benefits in our classrooms. Writing, reading, critical thinking and digital literacy are just a few of the myriad of skills a humanities major can offer to students to prepare them for future careers and be to engaged citizens.
According to Erik Brynjolfsson, director of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, in-demand skills in a world of increasing automation may actually be skills best achieved with a humanities education. In an interview with NPR he said machines are bad at “doing creative work” and work that requires “interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence,” adding “there’s probably no better time in history to be somebody with some real creative insights.” While we may never know for certain what skills our students will need for the work force in twenty years—13 years ago researchers thought truck driving was safe from automation—what Brynjolfsson highlights here aligns neatly with much of the work we do with our students.
By studying the past and present with an eye towards the future, the humanities allow students to understand the world’s interconnectedness, while gaining cultural understanding and empathy. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that children and high school and university students who read the Harry Potter series “improve[d] attitudes toward stigmatized groups.” Though contact between different groups of people has long been known to reduce or even eliminate prejudices between them, this study shows that literature can have a similar effect. So, whether our students are studying the crusades, reading Victorian literature or learning about Stonewall, we’re not only helping our students learn skills that cannot be automated, but are also building a world with greater understanding.
In a society that’s increasingly about commodification, where the pressure for results and production seems overwhelming to students, we should inform our students that a major in the humanities can serve dual purposes in their lives. They’ll not only gain the skills to succeed in their future career, but also to live a more engaged, empathetic life.
Elizabeth Martin is an Instructional Specialist in the Writing Studies Department at Montclair State University in New Jersey and a staff writer for American Mircoreviews & Interviews. She received her M.F.A. from William Paterson University. Her journalism has appeared in Parsippany Life, Neighbor News and The Suburban Trends. Her creative writing has been published by Neworld Review, Hot Metal Bridge and Menacing Hedge, among others. She’s the recipient of two New Jersey Press Association awards. Currently, she’s at work on a collection of essays.