Humanities Majors Learn More

Academically AdriftReports about Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses are burying the lead or omitting it all together.  At a time when the humanities are under attack, this book reveals that humanities majors are learning more than all other majors.  You read that correctly.  The students who are acquiring the most knowledge from their college educations are those who major in English, Philosophy, Music, Fine Arts, Religion, History, Theatre, and Modern Languages:

Students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.” Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains. (The authors note that this could be more a reflection of more-demanding reading and writing assignments, on average, in the liberal arts courses than of the substance of the material.)

That’s from Scott Jaschik’s piece in Inside Higher Ed, one of the only articles to even mention this important victory for the humanities.  True, it’s not the lead, and the parenthetical diminishes the importance of the subject.  (That final sentence makes the absurd claim that the humanities have both “more-demanding reading and writing assignments” and somehow less “substance.”  What?)  Their apparent anti-humanities bias aside, Arum and Roska’s study brings good news for those of us who value the humanities.

Why, then, do the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times, and others fail to mention the fact that humanities majors are learning more than their colleagues in other fields?  Why are the headlines “University students learn next to nothing” (Macleans) or “New Study Confirms the Obvious: First Two Years of College Spent Sleeping and Partying” (Vanity Fair)?

There are many reasons, all of which have been stated elsewhere with greater eloquence.  (For those who wish to skip a summary of the obvious, jump past this list to the next paragraph.)  Some reasons include:

  1. Americans’ anti-intellectualism.  Most Americans distrust the well-educated, and consider knowledge with suspicion.  To point to but one recent example: For the past decade, The Today Show has featured the winners of the Caldecott and Newbery Awards.  This year, on the first show after the awards were announced, Today‘s featured guest was Snooki.  The winners have yet to appear on the program.
  2. The widely held notion (by many state legislatures, at any rate) that college is a waste of the public’s money.
  3. And, of course, cultural prejudice against the humanities.  English majors: how often do your relatives ask you what you’re going to do with that degree? How many of your classmates ask why you need a B.A. in English to ask “Do you want fries with that?” How many Engineering majors get asked the same questions?

All of the above are either false or based on false premises.  If you’re able to think critically about the world, you’re less likely to be misled (by, say, politicians who claim that we “can’t afford” to fund public education adequately).  If you gain a college degree, you’ll have a better chance at finding gainful employment.  And, as for the notion that humanities majors enter the job force ill-equipped, that’s simply nonsense.

To focus on the students I teach, English majors go on to become librarians, screenwriters, teachers, technical writers, lawyers, journalists.  They work in non-profits, publishing, advertising, public relations.  One former student of mine works for Hallmark.  You can do a lot with a degree in the humanities. As Geoffrey Galt Harpham writes, “the humanities elicit and exercise ways of thinking that help us navigate the world we live in. For my money, that’s about as essential as it gets.”  To be a student of the humanities is to consider with greater nuance and deeper understanding just what it means to be human.  What could be more important than that?


  1. Reply

    Excellent and pithy recap. I’m glad I’m not the only one who noticed that “students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.” This was the first thing that leapt to my eye when I read yahoo news’s summary of the study.

    I do find it troubling – VERY troubling – that education is one of the majors showing the least amount of progress or gain.

  2. Joanne


    Great post. Don’t forget John Henry Cardinal Newman’s views:

    “[The purpose of a liberal arts education is to] open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, [and] eloquent expression. . . .”

  3. Reply

    My wife teaches English to undergrads at a science-heavy university, and she sees this bias from both the school and her students.

    Maybe one part of the problem is that Humanities majors tend to populate both extremes of the productivity-spectrum? The smart, hardworking ones go on to do wonderful, exciting things (becoming the “librarians, screenwriters, teachers, technical writers, lawyers, journalists” that you mention in your post). But the bad Humanities students can be slackers of a higher order. I have known too many English majors (even a few graduate students) who boast about skipping reading assignments, writing papers overnight, and BS-ing their way through classroom discussions. Those types of students may be in the minority, but they are perceived by our culture as the norm. Rotten apples, as it were.

    I think the first step to re-educating the public about the value of the Humanities is in speaking out against lazy stereotyping when it appears — just as you did in this post. Well done.

  4. Reply

    Thanks, all, for the thoughtful comments. I didn’t know Newman’s quotation. That’s a good one!

    Jonathan: yes, I’ve encountered humanities majors from the slacker end of the productivity spectrum, too. I’m inclined to see far fewer at that end and far more at the highly productive end. That said, I’ve not made a systematic study. And you’re quite right to note the prevalence of the slacker-humanities-major stereotype. I think that even the productive humanities types contribute to that stereotype by minimizing the significance of what they do. Though I’m fairly productive, I’m certainly prone to self-deprecating remarks about what I do – saying that I study children’s literature because it’s at my reading level, or admitting that I went to graduate school because I didn’t want to get a “real job.” I don’t know whether these comments also reflect the ways in which I’ve unconsciously absorbed dominant assumptions about the humanities or whether they simply reflect my personality. But they do likely perpetuate the very stereotypes that I oppose.

  5. Skip Knox


    Let me add one more factor: the increased emphasis of a college education as a pathway to a job. Not some job, mind you, but a specific job. Students go to college to become architects, businessmen, nurses.

    In that light, what good is a degree in the humanities? Yes, it qualifies one for *a* job, but not any particular career (besides reiterative ones). It’s difficult for the general public to have much sympathy for investing so much money in such a nebulous outcome. Hell, I can get those things Cardinal Newman mentions in my spare time, right? Why should I have to spend so much money and effort to get them?

    This is our own fault. We have pitched a university education as a pathway to a career, and anything that doesn’t help construct that pathway is a bother. Back when education was comparatively cheap, this was no more than a bother. Nowadays, however, those bothers are a burden on both the institution and on the student.

    Before anyone yelps, I know that we in the humanities never made such a sales pitch. We winced every time we heard it, fearing the worst. Well, here we are. So long as universities are perceived as a place primarily for careers and productivity improvement, we in the humanities will be marginalized. We are a cultural luxury item that can be trimmed in hard times. If we’re only a luxury item, how can we be surprised that society at large doesn’t take us seriously?

  6. Les


    The ability to “learn more” in College may also be attributed to the low level of certain kinds of teaching in precollegiate schools. After all, if you start out behind, you go farther in order to just catch up.

    Regarding the teaching of critical thinking, in 10th grade my English teacher taught… us how to write an essay with the basic “say what you think, explain why you think it with reasons and examples, summarize what you think at the end” formula. I’ve spoken to very intelligent friends with different kinds of scholastic backgrounds and apparently I am extremely fortunate in having gotten this kind of teaching in high school English.

    Other than that, the analytical stuff was all in my math/sci classes… and in my upbringing from my parents. My parents had that “analyze and question, even if you’re questioning authority” way of thinking transmitted to their children from as early as they could.

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  8. Reply

    I am a humanities scholar (English, with a specialty in film and media studies), and while I am delighted to see some positive recognition for the work that we do as faculty, I am a little skeptical about some of the conclusions.

    The report states, “Students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.” In other words, students majoring in liberal arts improved the most in skills taught in liberal arts majors. That’s a very different skill set than the one taught in business, social work, or some of the other majors cited above.

  9. Reply

    Chuck: some skepticism is warranted. Judging by press reports, the survey relies on “student surveys and transcript analysis” (Inside Higher Ed). While both of those are useful measures, they’re not sufficient to gauge learning. In the Chronicle piece, Alexander C. McCormick, director of the National Survey of Student Engagement, says that the survey does not track “the development of subject-matter knowledge in the majors.” If that assessment is accurate, then the survey is even more seriously flawed.

    And, as Skip Knox points out, humanities majors are not being trained for a specific job – even though many people go to college in order to prepare for that specific job. The humanities prepare you do to do many different kinds of work because they teach you critical thinking. Writing as a former humanities major (and current humanities professor), I was “adrift” in college. Oh, I was studying hard and earning good grades. But I didn’t know what career I was working towards. I simply pursued courses that interested me. When it came time to declare a major, I realized that I’d taken a fair few classes in both English and Psychology. So, I opted for a double-major in those two fields. Following my interests led me to the job I now hold (Professor of English). Not a practical route, but the kind of intellectual exploration that the humanities allow.

    Of course, like Les, I was fortunate to have some excellent pre-collegiate education. The privilege of good schooling may have enabled me to excel in ways that some of my classmates (who went to less good schools) could not – or, certainly, excelling required them to overcome an inadequate pre-collegiate education. U.S. public education has major problems. As of last spring, I’ve started to weave in some grammar lessons into my Literature for Children class. It’s not the subject of the course, but future teachers (most of the students are Elementary Ed) need to have a better grasp of how the English language works. But that’s a subject for another day.

    Thanks, all, for reading + posting!

  10. cassamandra


    Chuck points out that “critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills” are “skills taught in liberal arts majors. That’s a very different skill set than the one taught in business, social work, or some of the other majors cited above.” Perhaps so, but it’s hard to survive in business without critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing sklls. Ditto for law school and any number of non-humanities careers, so I’m not sure why this is supposed to somehow diminish the findings — it actually makes them stronger. “Portable skills essential to professional careers only taught in the humanities” would be a fitting headline in that case.

  11. Jonathan Coker



    As someone who is getting his masters in Elementary Education but was a humanities major for undergrad, I can attest to the truth of your post. I’ve been hailed as some type of genius in all my classes. I was starting to get a pretty big head, when I realized that almost everyone was a business major for undergrad. We would collaborate on lesson plans, and I would throw some random facts into the lesson; and they would look me and ask, “How did you know that?” I would ask them questions about their education and the answers were pretty shocking like, “I got out of my English class by taking a Business Letter Writing course.” (cue vomiting noise)

    What is so frustrating to me with the field of Education is that this type of ignorance is perpetuated by the licensure procedures and Schools of Ed. for new teachers. For example, let’s say you have two people who want to become teachers. One person has a degree in the content knowledge and has taken a few ed courses. The other has an Education degree and took a class or two in the content area. Certification automatically goes to the Education student! The idea that you do not have to be educated in order to be an educator is absolutely repugnant to me.

    Now let me head some naysayers off at the proverbial path here about a potential criticism that Education coursework is so specialized. Much of the Education courses I have taken were absolute nonsense or more accurately intellectualized common sense. I do not need an entire course about how to grade a student or another course just on how to use a Smartboard. Training future educators that way wastes so much time and money and is just plain ignorant.

  12. FD


    How about applying some critical thinking to what was actually said. . .

    Students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.”

    1) Seeing “higher gains” might reflect on the baseline level of the students ENTERING those fields.

    2) Writing skills? Really? The fields that require more writing show higher increases in writing skills. Wow.

    3) Related to point 1, I’d like to compare the “critical thinking” and “complex reasoning” levels to those of mathematicians and engineers. Not GAINS in those things. . .just the levels.

    That doesn’t make those students better equipped to handled the “real world” or law school than people with more professional degrees. It just shows they improved more in college.

  13. Humanist


    the parenthetical part of the quote says that the increase in certain skills in Humanities majors might be a reflection of the frequency with which those skills are taught in Humanities courses, and not a reflection of the substance (read: “content”) of the material. Still arguably screwy, but certainly not framing the issue in terms of “more” or “less” “substance.”

  14. Jayna


    No one is knocking science or math or engineering here, FD. Why is it often so hard for math and science types to believe that people with English or history degrees are as smart if not smarter than they are? Have a little empathy, will you? No one is threatening to take away the engineering departments. And please don’t assume that the engineers come to college brighter than their humanist counterparts.

    The whole point of college is to improve oneself, to transform oneself. The point of college is not to get you a job. (As my father, an engineer, always says: “Any idiot can get a job.”)

    Too many studies and colleges focus on whether students are getting jobs and not whether they’re learning or changing or growing in intellectual and social terms. It’s great to get a job (all my engineering, history, and English major friends from college got jobs…why anyone would think otherwise is puzzling to me), but we need to start evaluating college students in line with why they’re there in the first place.

    If vocational majors are doing students a disservice and colleges are steering students into vocational majors and away from the liberal arts, that’s a huge problem. I’d say engineering is a vocational major as well, but you need to develop excellent math, science, and reasoning skills to get that degree. I’m fine with a college championing its engineering program. But when schools shuffle students through education programs with the promise of a job and those students graduate without the reading, writing, and reasoning skills a history major might have given them, that makes me furious. No one should pay for a b.s. (and I don’t mean a B.S.) degree when that same tuition money might have gotten them a real college education with thinking skills useful to various careers, including teaching. We’re killing history departments for the sake of turning out education majors who, in my experience, barely function at a 9th grade level. (Teaching history to education majors taught me that I can never in good conscience send my child to public school.) Society hurts when universities encourage their students to learn less than they should, and so do the students who wasted four years of college learning a bunch of nonsense that neither transformed them nor made them better people, learners, or workers.

    This is not about how much better engineering or math or science majors are compared to their humanist counterparts. This is about how little vocational majors learn in college and how that hurts so-called college graduates, employers, and citizens.

  15. Charley


    Another item that I wanted to add to the list (though I love Skip Knox’s comment, because it is far too true), was that college is not viewed as higher education by students anymore. To clarify, I am referring primarily to incoming students who simply view it as High School, round 2. College is no longer a pathway to further oneself as a human being, but simply the next step in a sadly preprogrammed life. If one can afford to go to college and chooses not to, for whatever reason, they are scorned and ridiculed by the windbag business majors who not only have already figured out everything they need to know about life, but also that money is the most important aspect of it, and something that will be thrown at them as soon as they’ve ‘earned’ their shiny BBA. Yet if one drops out of college for excessive drinking and rapid decrease of brain cells, they can still be ‘part of the scene’. Either way, to throw oneself into higher education without any preparation is simply the norm now, and many assume that college might even be easier that H.S., since no one can force you to go to class. (A truly winning attitude.)

    Someone had commented on how horrifying it was that teaching majors we’re not in the list of those most educated, and I have to agree. I went to a school that theoretically emphasizes a secondary ed program, and yet when I read my education friend’s papers, I usually wrote more in red ink than he did in black, and I would not call myself grammatically astute. The mistakes he was making in his writing were so simplistic that they should have been beaten out of him in 3rd grade, and yet he went all through his education with no correction, and is currently a history teacher, presumably passing on the same affliction.

    I hope that there can be some progress in dealing with the Higher Education crises, but education in America seems to be trapped in a perpetually downward spiral as standards continue to diminish. It seems impossible to me for anyone to fathom fixing higher education when the problem seems to be in primary and secondary ed. The interest in humanities is something that needs to be instilled from a young age, and without that I don’t see how one could expect any progress in higher education. I think that the secondary ed degree needs a massive overhaul in difficulty, standards, and priorities, and from that we could hope to see some growth in future intellect.

    Apologies for the long and pompous post…I hope no one actually suffered through it.

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  18. Dan


    Just a small note: we also have to be careful about labeling humanities ‘slackers,’ at least post-college. Artists, writers, etc, face a long road, and success is not measured in year-end bonuses. Or even salaries. But in tiny victories. Chapters. Short stories. Workshops. Jonathan Larson wrote “Rent” over seven years or so while he waited tables. In fact, he waited tables up until the off-broadway opening, I think.

    When I was teaching, and had to work Orientation days, I had an essay that for the life of me I can’t find anymore, titled, “Do you want fries with that?” In it, the author pulled the data from LSATs, and other aptitude tests, and showed how humanities majors blow the doors off other majors in scoring.

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  23. Reply

    Humanities types believe in the deeper meanings of things. They would be interested whether it got them a job or not. Selling out is not even in the cards anyway. They are there for the ride. In schools, children should be shown how to ride the word like a spaceship or a seahorse; to go with the words, flow with the words and yet understand that it is not always just how you say it but what you say, so to be careful with the words, co-inhabit the space with the words lovingly so that the final destination’s landing will be soft and all will exit the craft better improved, stealthier, stalwart, possibly even happy. We could work this all out but we would be accused of socialism.

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