Early in November, the New York Times published an article about cutbacks in humanities and social sciences departments at major universities in favor of computer science and career-oriented (what we used to call “vocational”) programs such as business and nursing. The article focused on West Virginia University, Miami University, and the state of Mississippi, but the trend extends even to ivory fortresses like Harvard. The typical justification for this trend is simple: degrees in subjects such as literature, philosophy, and history do not give students the skills they need to get jobs upon graduation, and as a result fewer and fewer people are choosing these majors.
If anyone should be able to defend the humanities, I should. In college, I majored in social studies (after dabbling in literature and economics), an interdisciplinary program whose year-long flagship course involved reading Adam Smith, Tocqueville, Marx, Nietzsche, Weber, Durkheim, and Freud. I got a Ph.D. in intellectual history, writing a dissertation on avant-garde French culture. With that extraordinarily impractical education, I got a job as a management consultant, co-founded a successful software company, went to law school, started a highly influential blog, wrote a bestseller about the financial crisis, and became a tenured law professor.
In one of those moments of Internet serendipity, on the same day I read that article, I read another Times article about Sam Bankman-Fried. It quoted the disgraced (and convicted) cryptocurrency mogul as saying, “I’m very skeptical of books. I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that.”
It would have been easy to put two and two together and say that Bankman-Fried (and hence the world) would have been better served if he had spent more time reading books. Or he could have taken some real philosophy courses instead of falling through the looking-glass of Effective Altruism — a doctrine that, like much of the intellectual output of the libertarian technology millionaires and billionaires, consists of a handful of truisms repackaged into a self-aggrandizing and self-serving ideology.
But that would be too glib. Bankman-Fried apparently majored in physics, which is as time-honored an academic discipline as you can find (Galileo, anyone?). More importantly, the decline of the humanities has its roots in some real societal trends. The expansion of college beyond the rich has reduced the appeal of traditional sources of cultural capital such as classics or French. The neoliberal regime of job insecurity, coupled with the rise of inequality, has created intense pressure to become employable as quickly as possible. The lionization of business, particularly finance and technology, has motivated many young people to study marketing, finance, or computer science rather than English or history. Rampant increases in the cost of college have forced many families to see college solely in terms of return on investment.
Yet I still think our collective abandonment of the humanities and social sciences is a bad thing for our society and even for our economy. Many of the traditional defenses of traditional learning still hold. Our polity would be in much better shape if people better understood history: the history of slavery and oppression of Blacks in the United States, to take one example, and the history of fascism in Europe, to take another. We would have more compassion for underprivileged and marginalized communities if we knew more about sociology and psychology. We would be less xenophobic and be more informed about international affairs — like the two major wars that are going on right now, or the long-term rivalry between the U.S. and China— if more Americans studied foreign languages and cultures. We would better understand our own lives and the lives of our fellow humans if we read and studied more good books.
These are all reasons why we as a society should invest in the humanities and social sciences — an investment that, in practice, typically comes in the form of state support for universities and academic research. But the secular decline of these disciplines is due less to the supply side than the demand side. For the reasons outlined above, students are flocking to majors that promise they can get jobs and repay their student debts. In a day when universities are driven largely by economic motives, it is increasingly untenable to have large departments with few students.
So why should individual students major in the humanities or social sciences? The standard argument is that these fields give you general skills that will be useful throughout your working life, which is especially important in a world where most people end up working in multiple fields, most of which are not the one they originally intended. According to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, even with a major like business management, 55 percent of graduates in their mid-twenties were underemployed in 2021, meaning they held jobs that did not generally require a college degree. (By comparison, only 49 percent of history majors were underemployed.)
I have been fortunate enough to work in several different fields: academic research (as a graduate student), management consulting, software, blogging, writing, teaching, and academic research (again). The primary skills that have served me well have been: reading and processing information quickly; keeping complicated concepts straight in my head; identifying a desired outcome and coming up with a plan to achieve that outcome; convincing other people to do things I needed them to do; and to writing well. I can’t prove that I developed those skills by reading Nietzsche in college, but I certainly didn’t learn it by studying business or computer science, given that I never took a class in either. And I do think that reading about a lot of different things, and then discussing and writing about a lot of different things, does prepare your brain to handle a wide range of situations in the future.
(Brief aside: I can’t emphasize enough the importance of being able to write. For the foreseeable future, the way you present yourself to other people in most high-skill professions will be through writing: emails, memos, reports, emails, papers, Slack channels, and more emails. And the sad truth is that most college graduates don’t know how to write. As a law school professor, I was teaching people from the top few percentiles of the educational system, and most of them could not write three paragraphs without plain old grammatical errors, poor word choices, or convoluted sentence structures. The classes in which I helped my students the most were the ones in which I focused on correcting their writing. That’s also one reason I quit teaching; I got frustrated realizing that I could have the most impact by doing the job their sixth-grade teacher should have done. It’s true that at large state universities there is little writing these days, but just reading a lot will improve your writing — as long as what you read is written well.)
Anyway, my life story is unlikely to convince many people. More generally, however, the idea that studying “business” — the most popular major in American colleges — will help you make a lot of money is largely a fallacy. This should be obvious on its face. Until recent decades, you couldn’t study business as an undergraduate, at least not at a top school, and plenty of people went on to succeed in the business world. The most important skill in business is the ability to call up someone who has no particular reason to help you and convince that person to do something for you. That cannot be taught in any class. At the companies where I worked, an undergraduate business degree counted as a strike against a job candidate. We wanted people who were intellectually curious and academically inclined, and those people rarely major in business.
Furthermore, the specific skills one needs to do most jobs can typically be learned on the job, if you have a good basic education. That’s why I was able to get a job at McKinsey with a Ph.D. in French intellectual history. They have a three-week training program for people without an MBA, and everything else you pick up doing the work. McKinsey as a company has its own deep and well-documented failings, but I don’t think anyone has ever contested its ability to hire and train the people it needs to do the job.
But let’s look at the numbers. I actually haven’t found a rigorous, recent study that relates employment and income to college major — just lots of tables of aggregate data, not controlling for anything. If you look at the FRBNY data, however, a few things do stand out. When you look at median mid-career earnings by major, the bottom of the table includes most types of education and social services ($43–52,000), while the high end includes most types of engineering and computer science ($100–120,000). So if you can make it as an engineer, go for it.
But when we look at the more typical majors, things are less clear. Business management majors have mid-career median earnings of $75,000 and an unemployment rate in their mid-twenties of 5.0 percent. Nurses have very low unemployment (1.3 percent) and also make $75,000. (Education majors also have very low unemployment, but, as noted above, make less in mid-career than almost any other group.) On the other hand, history majors make $70,000 and have an unemployment rate of 5.8 percent. Political science majors make $80,000 and have an unemployment rate of 6.9 percent. Even the much-mocked English majors make $65,000 and have an unemployment rate of 6.3 percent.
Whether you think these are big differences is up to you. Bear in mind, however, that the income figures are medians of distributions that overlap a lot. Furthermore, because these are just aggregate population statistics, they leave out many other factors that could be influencing the numbers. For starters, it’s probably a fair assumption that people who major in business management are more interested in making money than people who major in history, to begin with, and will therefore seek out higher-paying jobs. So the difference in median incomes — which is only $5,000 — could easily reflect differences in the people who choose those majors rather than differences in the job skills provided by those majors. Then there’s the fact that more women major in history and English than in business. Given that women make less money than men, even for the same jobs, that factor will also artificially increase the earnings gap between business management and humanities majors.
Ultimately, the idea that you have to major in something that will lead directly to a job is overblown. Much more depends on you as a person than on what you major in. While I don’t think it’s helpful to say that you should just major in whatever interests you, I think it is entirely possible that a philosophy degree could prepare you better for a long, varied, and fulfilling professional life than a degree in marketing or being a medical technician. The days when we saw college as a place to explore esoteric interests and become a well-rounded intellectual are gone forever, perhaps for the better. But we should not abandon the idea that a college education should give people the basic intellectual skills to understand and analyze information, generate new ideas, engage in reasoned debate with their peers, communicate clearly, and appreciate the perspectives of other people. Those you can develop by studying almost anything that is intellectual stimulating and challenging.