How can the Humanities evolve to remain relevant?

This article does a great job of explaining how and why the humanities are changing and the need to evolve to remain relevant.

The shift away from humanities majors worries me. We still need to know how to write, to understand the impact of literature on society (it’s still there, or they couldn’t be trying to ban books in school libraries, right?), to understand how our past affects our future, and I could go on.

The students I work with currently all seem to want to get into the business school for undergrad. If we have no range of majors, we have future job needs going unfulfilled.

More students seem to think they must study preprofessional majors that are more narrowly focused, but I feel that the core principles of a liberal arts education are the best way for many students to find what interests them. People are motivated by studying their interests, and yet there are only so many career paths than can be categorized into a few boxes.

Would love to hear thoughts from those actively involved in higher Ed and any one else. Article should be free to read.


The studies and teaching of the humanities in college haven’t yet faced their greatest challenge on the horizon: the disruptive and evolving technologies represented by ChatGPT.


Without the humanities, what will ChatGPT have to write about? Only half kidding.


There’re people like Noam Chomsky who called ChatGPT “basically high-tech plagiarism”. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:


ChatGPT isn’t one person’s work, but I don’t necessarily see it as plagiarism either (not counting students using it to things that are supposed to be their own work). ChatGPT generally isn’t pulling any verbatim quotes if you ask it to write something like an essay. If one asks it for quotes, it provides the source. I have played with it quite a bit, and some phrases/sentences of essays have come up as plagiarism in Grammarly Premium (which I have always used to detect plagiarism in students’ essays)…but those phrases/sentences have been innocuous which I wouldn’t consider plagiarism.

Ultimately I believe people are going to see ChatGPT, and all the as yet to come AI language bots, as great time savers…e.g, writing agendas, grant proposals, and the millions of other things people are already using it for.

I am not sure what will happen with Humanities education. Lots of non-Humanities majors can and do fill jobs that Humanities majors are also qualified for. Many of these non-Humanities majors are also fine writers, critical thinkers, strong analyzers of text, etc (skills often more associated with Humanities majors). But I don’t feel the opposite is true as often…Humanities majors with strong quant skills (I know there are many exceptions). And ultimately that may limit jobs for them and/or make them less competitive in the job market.

Perhaps Humanities will be saved if we end up going to a universal basic income. (which is probably another thread LOL)


This is an important topic. I like to break it down to How We Live vs. Why We Live. We need engineers to build theaters and we need artists to fill those theaters. I have two kids and they clearly fall into the different categories One is finance and the other the Arts. Looking back to their early beginnings, they consistently have fallen into these separate categories; one always followed a traditional course with somewhat predictable outcomes while the other is far more free form. Long term, I can see her operating in many different fields while he will likely stay in a narrow lane. From a parent perspective, I guess it depends on where one falls in that spectrum to appreciate (and guide) a child’s path. From a mature business owner perspective, my opinion has changed over the years. I used to think “What is the purpose of a humanities or social science major? What are they capable of doing (tangibly)?” BTW - I was a social science type major. Now I’m far more in the camp of , “Anyone can learn the technical skills, give me future leaders all day long.” Of course a combo of hard and soft skills is ideal.

One of my older brothers is an interesting cat. A very unusual combination of the two. PhD in Neuro Psych. Major brain power in data analytics, scientific method, stats, etc. But his unique abilities fall in the leading of teams, client engagement, public speaking, People Change/ Human Factoring arenas. He’s hired many graduate level students into his consultancy. The MIT kids do well for very specific roles, whereas “the brilliant ones” come from a variety of backgrounds. Of course those MIT kids are brilliant in their area of expertise, but he feels that’s pretty easy to find. The ones who can synthesize massive amounts of data, digest / intuit / simplify it for client consumption, and become industry thought leaders generally come from the social sciences.


Your post is soooo spot on!

But THIS is why humanities matter! And I don’t just mean artists. I’m talking about thinkers, people who make ideas, designers who bring ideas to life, poets to make the ideas sound amazing, and everything else that makes life wonderful.

Someone in my community posted about their kid looking for a middle school internship. This, IMO, is such a damaging mindset. There are so many wonderful activities for kids to be engaged in. Let them become automatons after they aren’t so young.

I know these trends come in waves, but people still need to find creative ways to think. I’m not saying we all need to encourage our kids to become English majors (though that’s what I majored in and it worked out well for me). I do think we should help our kids spend more time thinking about what they might enjoy, rather than urge them to declare a business major fresh out of high school.


If “anyone can learn technical skills” there would not be the high unmet ( and thus well paid) demand for those with such skills ( and attendant visa issues). Apparently not many, or at least not enough, can learn those skills to meet demand.


ChatGPT also makes up sources and references. This thread isn’t really about ChatGPT, but it’s important for anyone working with these AI based tools to know that you need to double check absolutely everything in the output (facts, references, quotes, calculations, etc.) against more reliable sources.


Totally agree.

Additionally, I don’t believe that “thinkers” only come from a liberal arts education. There are plenty of “thinkers” in engineering schools across the globe.


Difference between Can and Want to. I could learn a lot of technical skills. I choose (or chose) not to. Instead I get an overview level of understanding and use that to convey ideas (in business and in life). Not saying we don’t need people who can and want to get in the weeds and become quite technical. Have another brother who is highly technical. CE (and eventually HBS). Was part of the Genome Mapping project yrs ago and has since led companies to create inexpensive biosimilars to serve the underprivileged in many world world countries. We DO need people like that. But we also need plenty who can convey the importance of those issues and lead teams to partner with countries to help their citizenry. Not always the same person.


I know, another anecdote (and I’m in no way minimizing the importance of technical skills). My kid who chose the more technical, predetermined path attended a school that didn’t allow the focus of major until junior yr. Lots of people complain about this. Big time core component to their overall education. Not sure he enjoyed that much, but he did uncover a real interest in world events / poly sci (at least modern era). So much so he minored in it. Fast forward and he works for a major Asset Management firm (typical for his straight and narrow / technical / preprofessional self) but in reality, he uses his minor a lot (maybe even more than his major) as his firm is quite macro focused and he spends a lot of time conveying their world view on the economy, the Fed, global events and how that all effects trading, asset management, long term trends, etc. He has buddies who started in a similar role and have moved to a more technical, quant type role. They love it, but they are in a narrow world. Hopefully one not replaced by AI.

Good combination of the two.


Anyone can learn the technical skills? No, they can’t, unless you mean some very basic technical skills like creating a spreadsheet. Knowledge in STEM is highly hierarchical. You can’t do it when you haven’t built all the necessary foundations. Many (not all, of course) turned away from STEM after they had encountered difficulties in building those foundations.

Also, leadership qualities aren’t necessarily associated with any specialties or leanings.


Not always the same person, but often is. Hard to convince other countries to use a product you do not really understand well enough yourself. Many people with quantitative skills are quite literate and socially skilled as well. The old sterotype of a nerdy math boy in the basement is just that-an outdated sterotype.


As a humanities educator, I don’t think the humanities needs to evolve, nor do I think the humanities are in danger of becoming irrelevant. I think this is more of a reflection of k-12 education than higher education. If we foster in children and teens a love for literature, the arts, and history, and expose them to that core education, they will be better humans for it. Some will choose more practical and technical paths in college and some will choose liberal arts, and that’s appropriate. When schools shift to reading anthologies to teach to the AP test, rather than immersing students in great books, that’s where we have a problem.


I have a few thoughts on this:

  1. there’s a great segment on a recent “Your College Bound Kid” podcast where they talked about ChatGPT. I think it was in one of last week’s episodes.
  2. re: ChatGPT & use of it to produce essays/papers - D24’s AP English Lit class has been writing essays all year long…but they are all hand-written and done in class. And timed, so they’re prepared for the AP English Lit exam at the end of the year. She’s had, maybe, ONE essay that was done at home. so there are ways around ChatGPT, but the school/instructor has to be willing to change their methodology or subject matter that the essay is about.
  3. You could be brilliant in terms of STEM, but also be not good at all at communicating your ideas to others. THAT is where the Humanities can be helpful.
  4. In my line of work, I’ve found that the most effective tech leaders/managers are those who can effectively & succinctly explain complex technical concepts to non-technical people and also do it in a way that gets them excited about the idea, project, future path for the company, etc.
  5. In the workplace, the ability to communicate using the written word is really important because you only have a minute or 2 to get the attention of the person reading your email. They don’t have time to read paragraphs of text.
  6. In the humanities, in my opinion, is where one develops the skill to be able to compare and contrast concepts, ideas, themes. This is useful in many different professions, which is probably why pretty much every college in the US requires students to take a couple of english composition classes.

I would like to see more colleges have truly interdisciplinary majors. We have been trying to help S24 think about majors as he thinks about potential colleges. One of the problems he runs into is that majors that are strictly technical seem very dull to him, but majors that are strictly humanities are also too narrow. He loves the majors he has seen at schools that show a true integration of subjects (computer science & philosophy or sociology; data science & linguistics; business & psychology). He does not have enough knowledge to imagine the possibilities to put an interdisciplinary major together himself, but when he sees them he is always very interested in them. I think if more schools had preplanned interdisciplinary majors that would be a way to get more technical/pre-professional kids a strong humanities background.


I’ll return later to post more of my thoughts as it relates to the article in the first post, but this comment really hit home for me.

This article from NPR talks about the chances of particular professions being replaced by AI: Will Your Job Be Done By A Machine? : Planet Money : NPR

But fields like accountants, budget analysts, and market research analysts? They’re thinking that there’s a greater than 50% chance of being automated. Judges…they think there’s a 40% chance of automation. It may be that certain fields, any part that can be automated, likely will be, reducing the number of professionals still needed. The types of jobs that won’t require thinking about unique situations and creating things. That can be creating technical things (like engineers) but it’s also things like graphic design or the arts. Jobs that require lots of interaction with the public…odds are those jobs are going to be staying with humans. Jobs that don’t? Higher likelihood of automation. So, if my kid decides to go for a job where most of the day is spent on a computer with little interaction with others, I’d be concerned that in the next 20 years, that job might be done by a computer. AI is making some really big advances, so we need to depend on skills that are uniquely human. Which can also lead us back to the humanities.

I think Critical Thinking Skills are incredibly important. I think Humanities majors can be a good path toward improving/honing CTSkills.

As a STEM student who didn’t continue on that path and has not been a STEM worker, I see CTSkills being an important hook for after college job hunting and income creation, much the same way some parents regard STEM or pre-professional majors. Whether my children end up with W2 careers or pursue entrepreneurship or a creative livelihood, I think Critical Thinking Skills will be paramount to their success and ultimately (and more importantly) their life satisfaction.

I’m not sure we need to rethink the future of Humanities in a way that changes what Humanities do, can do, and should do. The problem I see most people try to attribute to Humanities majors is a red herring. It’s not that Humanities majors don’t “pay off” for a substantial percentage of its graduates. It’s that a substantial percentage of Humanities graduates never master their area of study, didn’t work hard enough to improve their Critical Thinking Skills in college, and don’t adequately apply themselves after graduation. The successful people I know who were Humanities majors did all those things.


That may very well be, @econpop. If the humanities were turning out critical thinkers with superb writing skills, companies would be eager to hire them. It appears that is not occuring. Companies do usually act in their own best interests, so if they shy away from hiring current English majors, it likely makes economic sense for them to do so.