Why you should study the arts and humanities
Let’s defer to famed film director George Lucas, who, in The Heart of the Matter, beautifully said:
“The sciences are the ‘how,’ and the humanities are the ‘why’ — why are we here, why do we believe in the things we believe in. I don’t think you can have the ‘how’ without the ‘why.’
Alongside other notables-including Ken Burns, John Lithgow and Yo-Yo Ma-Lucas explains why the arts and humanities are fundamental to our growth as a nation in that 7-minute American Academy of Arts and Sciences mini-film.
The “why” was a major driver for the creative, out-of-the-box thinking that flooded every episode of Star Trek. Little did we know that those gadgets and gizmos thought up by the creators and writers of this cultural phenomenon would soon be beamed into our everyday lives.
“From Bluetooth earpieces to tablets, Star Trek has foreshadowed the extent that hands-free technology would be involved in our pursuit of efficiency,” reads a fascinating article on Screen Rant. “Things that we take for granted, like video chatting and touch screen capabilities, were what helped Star Trek seem both years ahead of us and attainable in a not-so-distant future.”
“Design is about understanding people and creating experiences that they never could have imagined for themselves.”
— Essentials of User Experience (UX) Design Instructor Debra Michalides
Everyday tech advances like Oculus VR, the iPad, virtual reality glasses or 3-D printing were brought to life in Star Trek-powered by the creativity, ingenuity and artistic approaches that are the bedrock of the arts and humanities.
And yet, despite the obvious influence that the arts and humanities provide to our society at large-many coming directly from Silicon Valley-we have seen a decline in funding for the arts and humanities in our K-12 curriculum; though the 2023 Senate Appropriate Bill saw a bit of an uptick in spending. There are decreased degree completers in these fields. What’s being lost is learning how to think critically and act creatively and an understanding of others around us to deepen our intercultural EQ.
In fact, it’s these soft skills—or poignant leadership skills—that are mainly derived from studying and reflecting on lessons learned in the arts and humanities. And they’re not just played out in our personal lives, but they drive our professional aspirations forward.
“To make sense of our lives, we need stories — our own stories and the stories of others. We need stories from the past so that we can tell stories in the present that will carry us toward a better future.”
— Intermediate Fiction Writing Instructor Monica Wesolowska
Impact From COVID
A 2019 Survey of the Humanities in American Life shone a light on the importance of humanities in our everyday work life-no matter your career, your field or your position.
The study showed that 81 percent of Americans frequently use at least one humanities skill in their jobs. Based on that number, it’s somewhat surprising that 29 percent of Americans feel that their career advancement was at least partially impaired by a deficiency in one or more humanistic skills.
“The humanities are, it’s worth remembering, the study of what makes us human. It’s easier to build a path into a better future with an understanding of who we are and where we’ve come from, what we need as humans and what binds us together. The study of the humanities can be a source of not only wisdom, but also joy and of connection. All are in short supply always, but are renewable by returning to old truths and discovering new ones. Studying the humanities will be important as long as there are humans in need of those things.”
—Instructor Ian Jeffers
And these results were released pre-COVID-when humanistic skills such as clear and compassionate communication, effective visual presentations, empathy, learning from history and others have become perhaps more important than the technical skills to do the job. In this new age of Zoom meetings and remote/hybrid working, gaining skills in the humanities is the new norm to thrive in our multicultural, global workforce-no matter your field.
Matt Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies-a labor market and job skills analytics software firm-was recently quoted in an Inside Higher Ed article, saying that his own data supports the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ newest report, “How College Contributes to Workforce Success: Employer Views on What Matters Most.”
“COVID has led to an increased demand for advanced skills generally,” Sigelman says, adding that he’s seen an increased employer emphasis on automation. The demand for advanced skills has also “stimulated demand for bedrock liberal arts skills.”
Positions that are the “most data-driven and technology-enabled actually request more liberal arts skills than the average job,” he continues. The report notes that these jobs are 50 percent more likely to require writing, 50 percent more likely to request research skills and 40 percent more likely to ask for problem solving.
“The further north in one’s career arc,” Sigelman continues, “the more valuable liberal arts skills such as communication prove to be.”
Employers are also willing to pay a salary premium for liberals arts skills, he said. Engineering and information technology professionals can expect to make an additional $14,000 annually for leadership skills, $12,000 for presentation skills and $2,000 for writing skills, based on a median salary of $81,000, according to information from Burning Glass.
Related: The Future of Work Podcast Season 1 Episode 5: “ The Hybrid Role-Fusing Technical and Soft Skills, Part 1
Welcome to STEAM
So perhaps it’s not just about STEM, but it’s about STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math.
“Study humanities and save the world,” says Mystery Writing instructor Margaret Lucke. “STEM-science, technology, engineering and math-is what’s hot in education these days. STEM gives us ways to plan the world, run the world and maybe even save the world. But while STEM subjects are necessary and important, they are far from sufficient for they leave out the human element. Some wise educators turn STEM into STEAM. The A is valuable because it adds the power of creativity, imagination and aesthetics into the mix. But it is the humanities that bring it all together, teaching us to appreciate the full range of human history, human cultures, human institutions and human connections. The humanities help us understand each other so that we can work together to move forward in positive directions. STEAM should become SHTEAM, because it is by studying the humanities that we can learn not only how to save the world, but why and how to make it a better place for all of us.”
While STEM focuses on the technical capabilities of doing the work, it’s the “A” that brings those skills to life. How?
“Our world is rapidly becoming more complex than ever. Look around: Everything we see has been designed by a designer. Studying design enables the next generation to shape the future to be more relevant for people of all walks of life. Design takes the words off of the page of a business plan or brief and makes them real.”
— Visual Design Principles instructor Tom Gehrig
Sure, you know how to run a clinical study, build a data model, ideate on introducing Machine Learning to your organization or develop a new software database to streamline and gain efficiencies.
But when the results from a clinical study come back, are you effectively employing critical thinking to decipher the data? When you are thinking about Machine Learning and AI, are you also taking into account any biases that may arise and their effects on social responsibility? When you’re building out that new database, how are you communicating that to the team, to your stakeholders?
“Design can be a great equalizer,” says Information Architecture (IA) and Content Strategy course co-instructor Rakesh Patwari. “It is the designers’ responsibility to make it possible. Designing is continuous problem-solving. Designing is synthesizing various perspectives to help people get their jobs done. A design creates value beyond the sum of its constituent perspectives.”
“Being a designer is exciting and never boring! Every day is always different with new creative challenges to pursue.”
— Information Architecture (IA) and Content Strategy co-instructor Earl Friedberg
It is in having these skills that will make or break your success-and these skills are what organizations are looking for.
This is something we touched on in our “Why These 10 Soft Skills Should Matter to You” blog. Time and again, we see employers looking for professionals who can:
- Dream up creative approaches to solving problems
- Communicate clearly and with empathy
- Collaborate with others
- Understand how their work plays into the larger context of ethics and personal and social responsibility
According to a 2021 article in Forbes, “With the rise of artificial intelligence, machine programming and the ever more rapid automation of technical skills, many companies are seeking just the creative and humanist thinking that emerges from a study of the liberal arts. In this current environment, what makes a prospective employee stand out is their ability to recognize value at the intersection of worlds, innovating from a broad perspective rather than through the lens of a single practice or skill.”
“Learning about design can help you to learn how to think,” suggests Typography Fundamentals instructor Shelley Gruendler. “It provides a methodology to both process problems and develop a range of solutions, all while prioritizing the user or the purpose. Understanding the design process can be helpful for all kinds of careers as it provides additional problem-solving tools beyond those intrinsic in a profession, in addition to finding new solutions to old and new problems.”
And if you’re still not convinced, take a tip from the late Steve Jobs:
In his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University, Steve recounted how the Macintosh became the first personal computer to have proportional fonts:
“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus, every poster, every label on every drawer was beautifully hand-calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san-serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.
“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do.”