Each time I introduce myself as a Penn student, I wait for the inevitable question: “What are you studying?”
I pull my spine up straighter, swallow a deep breath, and tell them — with all the pride that I can muster — that I am majoring in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies with a minor in Philosophy.
Typically, I stare into wide eyes and strange facial expressions. To most people, the pursuit of Gender Studies seems like little more than four years of trying to determine the difference between boys and girls. What’s the point of gender studies, they ask. What do you do with that kind of degree?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know.
Yet despite the uncertainty of what looms after graduation, I have opted — along with undergraduates in history, English, social science, and the arts — to devote my degree to the humanities. We muddle through Mill, we scrutinize Shakespeare, and we criticize cultural norms.
In an era when pre-professionalism reigns supreme, why choose the liberal arts?
If you’ve seen the forecast of the job market for soon-to-be-graduates, then you know the projections aren’t promising: Unemployment sits at 53 percent for college-grads under the age of 25, and degree holders are forced — now more than ever — to take jobs for which they are objectively overqualified. Graphs reflecting the unemployment rate of recent grads form steep and sobering Himalayan peaks.
In a tough market, engineers boast better job security than English majors; physics trumps philosophy in a hiring freeze. Employment has become a battlefield in which engineers hold the combat rifles. We, who studied history or English, are stuck with shield and sword.
It comes as no surprise, then, that those who want reassurance of a post-grad job choose training in business, engineering, or the hard sciences — while only eight percent of all college degrees today are in the humanities.
With the staggering statistics, I can’t blame them — but is Sartre really less valuable than hard science? Reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness offered me more than a profound fascination with existentialist philosophy: the struggle in working through a difficult text, paired with the task of mapping out his argument and responding with my own rebuttals, forced me to flex my critical thinking skills.
And it’s now, in an evolving job market, that these skills have become indispensable.
Unlike those with specialized or pre-professional degrees, we in the humanities are the jack-of-all-trades. Through many different lenses, we’re sharpening our skills in critical reading, writing, synthesizing, and analyzing. As Lance Wallace put it in a piece for The Atlantic magazine, “The liberal arts canvas is painted not in reassuring black-and-white tones, but in maddening shades of gray.”
And maddening it is: I’ve toiled for hours in my living room, balancing a cup of black tea atop my copy of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, trying to tease out the meaning. The hours we spend struggling through philosophy, or deconstructing literary tropes, or debating the implications of history, are really hours spent burgeoning into critical thinkers. This is exactly the appeal of liberal arts for nearly any job: the humanities teach us not to memorize information from textbooks or regurgitate terms and definitions, but to carefully measure our arguments and our ability to thinking.
A pre-professional degree might teach us how something is done, but the humanities beg to ask why?
But there’s more to the argument than just critical thinking. The liberal arts also force us to be creative and encourage us to think outside of the box. In one of his recent columns for the New York Times, Thomas Friedman called upon schools to not just make students knowledgeable — but innovative.
“My generation had it easy,” Friedman proclaims. “We got to ‘find’ a job. But, more than ever, our kids will have to ‘invent’ a job.”
In a rocky job market, this is both daunting and comforting. With my degree, I certainly won’t be a shoo-in for a job at IBM, but start-ups like Instagram or Foursquare were launched by individuals who saw beyond what already existed in the job market. (By the way, while Instagram founder Kevin Systrom went for an undergraduate business degree, Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley was a communications major!)
The humanities emphasize invention. Forced to reimagine the thematic meaning behind Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night or deconstruct the political implications of the Civil War, we are already at the undergraduate level learning how to reclaim and reinvent the world we live in. In today’s career world, innovation is the name of the game.
Perhaps no one embodies this better than Andrew Kortina, from the Penn class of 2005, who employed his education to co-found and develop Venmo, the money-transfer technology that’s revolutionizing the way we pay for things. Andrew double majored in English and philosophy.
I’d imagine that Andrew has also spent many nights at Penn struggling through Hegel, or trying to evaluate the importance of Kantian ethics. Rather than rubbing elbows with the tech and business leaders within Penn’s undergraduate community, I envision Andrew poised in a west Philadelphia café, engrossed in his favorite novel.
His background in humanities didn’t stop him from changing the world — rather, it enabled him to do so.
In a talk on his entrepreneurial success, Andrew noted that “you can pick up professional skills at work — you’re never going to get to discuss philosophy elsewhere.” True enough, his background in philosophy amounted to much more than just the sum of its reading list. The Atlantic Monthly surmised in 2011 that philosophy could in fact be the most practical department, citing the fact that philosophy majors regularly score highest among disciplines in verbal reasoning and analytical writing on the GRE test.
Andrew isn’t the only one who has carved a space for himself in the world, enabled by books and theorists. George W. Bush and John F. Kennedy received their B.A. degrees in history. Ronald Reagan, as an undergraduate, studied sociology. Penn’s own beloved president, Amy Gutmann, boasts degrees in liberal arts and political science.
But perhaps pointing to their innovations and successes misses the real point. We don’t love our humanities departments because we expect to become President — or Penn’s President — or pursue a particular profession at all.
The value in the humanities is decidedly not about where we’ll be in ten years, what sorts of products we’ll have invented, or what sorts of companies we’ll be working for. The real value in the humanities isn’t about careers at all.
We’ve been trained to keep our eyes on the prize — but what if the “prize” is something entirely different from the fancy career title or the polished resume that we’ve been trained to expect? What if the “prize” of our undergraduate careers is really our sense of childlike joy in reading a great novel, the sense of resonating accomplishment that comes with wrestling the theoretical, or the sheer intellectual curiosity that we foster each day in our humanities coursework? What if, contrary to what we’ve been conditioned to believe, the “prize” is the intellectual excitement from discussing Diderot over dinner, or visiting a student exhibition of art in the Philomathean Halls?
What if the “prize” is simply the passion?
Despite what Career Services tells us year after year, I didn’t devote my degree to the humanities because I thought it would launch career accomplishment (although I wholly believe that it will). I chose my path of study because no matter how many pages of theory I devour, how cramped my hand becomes from penning essays, or how many hours I spend truly lost in thought… I love what I study.
We opt into the humanities because of our unbridled intellectual interest, and I can think of nothing more fulfilling or rewarding than spending four years nurturing that interest and curiosity. Moreover, it’s this passion — the way my eyes light up when I talk about Beauvoir’s The Second Sex — that will lead us into innovative, exciting careers in the future.
During my freshman year convocation, Amy Gutmann asked our doe-eyed class of first-year Quakers: “Why Penn? Because we want you to pursue your passion and combine it with purpose.”
I think that Amy Gutmann has it just right — and the purpose will come, in due time. For now, though, I’ve committed myself to enjoying the passion: curled up on a comfortable couch, black tea in hand, dancing through the theoretical.