The Value of the Humanities: Celebrating National Arts and Humanities Month

By Connor Collins

On September 28, President Barack Obama continued a tradition first started under the Clinton administration in 1993 when he declared October to be this year’s National Arts and Humanities Month. In his official presidential proclamation, Obama said, “In many ways, the arts and humanities reflect our national soul. They are central to who we are as Americans—as dreamers and storytellers, creators and visionaries.”

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the independent federal agency that supports and promotes the arts and humanities, echoed the president’s call to recognize the value of the arts and humanities. The NEH insists that the humanities should not be limited to the academic world, and that all Americans should be able to draw upon them—history, literature, philosophy, the arts, classics, and more—to learn, grow, and celebrate our shared culture. William Adams, the NEH chairman, explained that “celebrating the arts and humanities helps build and sustain the nation’s cultural capital.” The NEH will initiate a new program called Creating Humanities Communities later in October to join other programs like Humanities Access Grants, the National Digital Newspaper Program, and Humanities in the Public Square to make the humanities more accessible to a wider range of Americans.

The presidential proclamation and the NEH’s new initiative to expand access represent recent gains in the national argument over the value of the liberal arts and humanities versus the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Fareed Zakaria, the notable Washington Post contributor, CNN host, and contributing editor for The Atlantic, argued in “Why America’s Obsession with STEM Education Is Dangerous” that a liberal arts and humanities education complements STEM fields, and that the innovation that has defined American corporate dynamism begins in the broad-based foundations of a liberal arts and humanities education.

Similarly, the October 2016 issue of Scientific American reinforced the notion that a balance between the arts and humanities and STEM fields must be reached, rather than elevating one over the other. In a statement on policy and ethics, the editors write: “The need to teach both music theory and string theory is a necessity for the U.S. economy to continue as the preeminent leader in technological innovation.” The common theme, and one that the Society supports, is to strike a balance between the arts and the sciences. Achieving this balance may be a difficult task. But raising awareness for liberal arts and humanities by designating October as the National Arts and Humanities Month represents concrete progress. The Society’s National Arts and Sciences Initiative strives to build awareness for the balance and the synergy between the liberal arts and the sciences. Recognizing the best of both the liberal arts and the sciences encourages people to merge what may seem like separate interests into innovative, effective educational and workforce systems.    

For those who still criticize the job prospects of liberal arts and humanities majors, there are a slew of articles and plenty of evidence for the financial value of majoring in the humanities. Business Insider listed eleven reasons to major in the humanities. One of the more compelling reasons they gave was the wealth of humanities majors in the upper echelons of the business world: American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault studied history at Bowdoin College; billionaire George Soros studied philosophy; Disney’s CEO Robert Iger studied communications; and there are many more examples. Forbes recently published findings from PayScale Inc. that highlighted fourteen job categories that disproportionately hire English majors and pay at least $60,000, with the highest paying job category being corporate communications directors who make an average of $128,000 per year.

The opportunities exist. Humanities majors can market themselves around their critical thinking, communication, and writing skills, especially when these skills complement STEM fields. Parlaying a broad-based humanities education into an in-demand skill set for the high-paying technological sectors in this country is a win-win for any graduate who has felt the pressure to abandon their passion for English, philosophy, or art for “more secure” STEM majors.     

Connor Collins is a senior at Case Western Reserve University double majoring in political science and sociology. Case Western Reserve University is home to the Alpha of Ohio Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.