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recent piece in the New York Times by Verlyn Klinkenborg discusses the withering of humanities in higher education: “The teaching of the humanities has fallen on hard times. So says a new report on the state of the humanities by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.” Students majoring in key humanities subjects are dwindling, and the article mentions rapidly fewer numbers of English majors. According to the article: “Undergraduates will tell you that they’re under pressure — from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large — to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs. Too often, that means skipping the humanities.”

Klinkenborg argues: “Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities. . . But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.” Moreover, Klinkenborg notes: “No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it — no matter how or when it was acquired — knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.”

I think that this article is exactly right. I was an English major, and I took a wide array of humanities courses in college, from history to philosophy to psychology. I am extremely grateful for my deep humanities background.

Although I write in law and technology, I have found my background in humanities to be indispensable. It has helped me understand issues in a much more robust way. It has helped me think and express my ideas in ways that have had more impact and resonance.

It is true that humanities don’t easily translate into money. But the humanities are like water – combine them with many things, and they can grow into something amazing.

In other words, good thinking and good writing alone won’t bring millions of dollars, but when put to use in various careers, they will.

Here are some of the great skills that the humanities teach:

  • the ability to interpret texts
  • a greater creativity – thinking in new and different ways
  • the ability to see things from different perspectives
  • the development of a richer understanding of what other people are feeling and experiencing
  • a deeper understanding of human nature – why and how people behave and how to have more productive interactions and relationships
  • the ability to write clearly and in an organized manner
  • the ability to see how texts can be interpreted in different ways and how to marshal evidence to support an interpretation
  • the ability to listen – to read a text closely and pay attention to what the text is saying
  • the ability to think in more nuanced ways, to see how subtle differences can ultimately have a big impact
  • a richer understanding of how various behaviors and choices lead to good or bad outcomes
  • a more articulate, persuasive, and engaging way of expressing oneself

In so many careers, these skills are what separate the great ones from the rest of the flock.

I hope the humanities remain a vibrant part of higher education, for although the immediate return on investment may not be as clear, in the long run, an education in the humanities can readily turn to gold. And the benefits extend beyond money and career — humanities deepen and enrich one’s life and help one think in a more rounded and multidimensional way.


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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy and data security training. He also posts at his blog at LinkedIn, which has more than 1 million followers.

Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz, of the Privacy + Security Forum an annual event designed for seasoned professionals. 

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