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.
Near the start of every fall semester, I cancel classes for a week to have my students come to my office for conferences. In addition to hoping this will help them with their writing and encourage them to come back on their own later on, I also want to ensure that my primarily First-Year students feel welcome to our rather large campus. Inevitably, our conversation will move away from their writing to their struggles adjusting to college life—difficulty finding parking, trouble with their roommates or a sense of conflict about their choice of major or lack thereof. Being the good department member I am, I of course suggest they consider a major in my college, Humanities and Social Science. And here begins the pushback.
“But what would I do with that?” I often hear.
I used to brush this off with a few rehearsed lines about how it’s better to be in a field you’re passionate about instead of one which you think will make you more money, but I now think this strategy is misguided. My traditional students who started college this fall were eight when the financial crisis began—a crisis that by many measures hasn’t ended for many folks. They may have seen their parents lose jobs or their family lose a home. Or, as is the case with many of my students, they may be a first-generation college student whose parents understandably want them to do better than they have. So when these students, already worried about the cost of college, are also worried about how they’ll be employed afterwards, I take them seriously. It’s no wonder they, and their parents, would like a practical major—something that correlates one-for-one to a job after they graduate. And it’s not that majors in the humanities don’t lead to jobs, studies show that they do, at roughly the same rate as those that get labeled more “practical” majors. It’s just that we haven’t done as good of a job at marketing to our students.
In 2004 former Secretary of Education Richard Riley said the now often quoted line, “The top 10 in-demand jobs in the future don’t exist today. We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”
We’re increasingly preparing our students to face a world where they may have a job that didn’t exist when they were in college. And so, I now encourage my students to think broadly and consider how their major might give them a set of marketable skills rather than provide what they perceive as an obvious path to a particular job. And here’s where a Humanities major truly shines because as we know, a broad, flexible skill base is the real value of a Humanities-based education.
Given that it’s National Arts and Humanities month, I’ll be discussing the specifics of how we can bring teachable moments into our classrooms to better demonstrate the true value of a Humanities major to our students. We can prove how the Humanities prepare them both for a career and to be conscientious citizens of the world, making our society better for it.