In the News
November 28, 2023

Opinion: Ask not what can be done with a humanities degree

Ann Ardis
The Hechinger Report

In a rapidly changing world, new report is full of good news for higher education

“What are you going to do with that?” is a question I heard often from my family as both an undergraduate and a graduate student.

Yes, I was an English major. My older siblings were going to nursing and medical school and all of my cousins were pursuing engineering, science and business degrees. So there was always an edge to that question every time it came up at family gatherings. A just-under-the-surface skepticism about the usefulness of a humanities degree as job preparation.

I know now that this question was meant kindly — and was informed by the older generation’s desire to see their children enjoy a return on investment (ROI) on a college education similar to what they themselves experienced as first- and second-generation college-goers.

College degrees changed the trajectories of their lives. They opened opportunities for economic and social mobility and moved my parents’ generation beyond the experiences of their grandparents and great-grandparents, many of whom, as first- and second-generation immigrants to this country in the nineteenth century, started their working lives as farmers or day laborers.

My aunts, uncles and parents were keenly aware that they themselves had benefited substantially from America’s grand expansion of the public higher education system post-World War II. Though their question burdened me at the time with self-doubt, among other things, they asked it out of a caring sense of concern for my future.

Decades later, I now have the privilege of serving as the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University, an access-oriented public research university that serves and graduates high numbers of students who are first-generation college goers, military veterans, economically under-resourced or transfer students, or from historically underrepresented groups.

As the idea of higher education as a public good is increasingly questioned or under attack, and as public perceptions of the value of a college degree relative to its cost continue to shift, I often remind my faculty of our fundamental purpose: We are here to educate our students.

We are here to engage them in the kinds of high-impact discovery learning that public research universities can offer at scale; the kinds of experiences that can change the trajectory of their lives and the lives of their families.

It is because of my institution’s access-oriented educational mission that I view the release of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ Humanities Indicators report, “Employment Outcomes for Humanities Majors: State Profiles,” as an important occasion.

View full story: The Hechinger Report



Humanities Indicators

Norman Marshall Bradburn and Robert B. Townsend