Humanities Majors Must Gain Foothold in Workforce

The Editorial Board

Last week The New York Times published an article citing declining in- terest in the humanities at colleges across the nation. Quoting faculty from Stanford and Harvard, as well as our fellow small liberal arts school Bard College, the Times article adds to the plethora of recent reports about the (in)significance of the humanities, which are framed as losing funding because “we have failed to make the case that those skills are essential.”

In response, College President Marvin Krislov submitted a Letter to the Editor arguing that the humanities, while declining in funding, are still “alive and well” and certainly “not on life support.” But we believe that the conversation extends beyond this dead-or-alive argument and speaks to the role of a liberal arts education, and even more specifically, to the role of an Oberlin education.
Perhaps the most honest way to express the status of recent Oberlin graduates is that the majority of them are prepared for everything and nothing at the same time. This fact nods at the privilege inherent in a liberal arts education, namely that it doesn’t funnel students into well-paid entry-level positions in the same way that more career-centric programs might. But since we’re all here and paying an exorbitant amount of money to pop out after Commencement as well-rounded, worldly individuals, let’s embrace our costly yet holistic liberal arts education and explore what this experience means for us now and in the future.

The single largest criticism of a liberal arts education seems to be the lack of workforce readiness. A recent study published in Inside Higher Ed by the scholastic company Chegg highlights a gaping disparity in students’ self-assessments of their skills versus hiring manager assessments of recent college graduates. Only 39 percent of hiring managers said the recent college graduates they interviewed were “completely or very prepared for a job in their field of study.” These stats, compounded with Oberlin’s anxiety-inducing number-one ranking on The Daily Beast list of “20 Colleges with the Worst Return on Investment,” are hardly encouraging. But though there is surely truth to these reports, they ignore the more redemptive aspects of an Oberlin-type education.

At the outset, the premise of these studies is flawed as far as Obies are concerned. Defining success solely in terms of salary doesn’t coincide with the values of most students here, which is why we send impressive numbers of students to the Peace Corps and Teach For America every year. And for many, the next step after graduation isn’t immediate employment. One of Oberlin’s selling points is that we have more graduates who have gone on to earn Ph.Ds than any other American baccalaureate college.
The study published in Inside Higher Ed concludes by emphasizing the importance for students to “proactively seek out ways to augment their skills through self-paced learning, coursework, co-ops and self-study” if they want to be competitive job applicants upon graduation.

Luckily, Oberlin students can claim these advantages in the job market. Oberlin makes a point to attract those who are active in their communities and involved in any number of extracurriculars, which gives grads an edge when competing against students from less active backgrounds.

This is not to say that Oberlin students shouldn’t heed the warnings of the Times. Graduating with a degree in the humanities generally puts students in a less desirable position immediately after graduation than, say, a degree in electromechanical engineering. But by taking advantage of the opportunities made available through Winter Term and summer internships — many of which the College helps finance and coordinate — Obies can compensate for their less career-directed education. Internships help students make connections in the workforce, and allow liberal arts stu- dents to showcase well-developed critical thinking skills that employers indeed look for in job candidates. At the very least, you can impress your boss at dinner parties with your knowledge of Kantian ethics and Foucauldian panopticism.