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.
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