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Humanities Degree

Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research

Thoughts on a Humanities Degree

The following is an answer to an interview question put to Elizabeth Garrett, who became President of Cornell University in 2015.

Students and others have questioned the practicality of a humanities degree in today’s job market.

Response:  "That is tremendously shortsighted.  Those who question the value of the humanities do not understand what an education in the humanities brings to a student.  There is no better way to impart critical thinking skills.  Through a philosophy class, for example, a student might learn how to rigorously analyze a problem, how to determine which kind of argument is weak and what is the stronger way to construct that argument.

I’ve talked to many people in, say, the financial industries, who will point to a class in the humanities –a philosophy class, a comparative literature class—as the foundational class for the way they approach problems.

The one thing that is certain is that we do not know what the next decades are going to bring.  The best way to prepare for the future is no to memorize a great deal of facts or prepare in very focused way for one job, but to develop a toolkit of abilities and skills so that a student is resilient, so that she has deep reasoning skills, so that she’s a critical thinker, so that she can reason to answers and question those answers again.  A successful person must have that spark of creativity that will distinguish her.  Those skills are imparted effectively in the humanities.

But we make a mistake in looking at the humanities only in instrumental terms.  They do serve very pragmatic, instrumental goals of improving one’s life choices, of enhancing a career, of ensuring success, but they are also necessary for us to understand ourselves as full human beings.  That awareness is developed through great literature or the classics; a deep understanding of our historical background; and an appreciation for how our traditions interact with other traditions.  Those experiences allow us to be more fulfilled as human beings and to take greater delight in our futures.

Having the humanities in close proximity to the sciences and the social sciences is what distinguishes a great university from a research institute or a think tank.  It’s what allows us to have the kind of creativity that propels us forward toward truth and allows us to put a critical lens toward what progress means for society.  There are often profound moral and ethical questions that are raised by scientific progress, and it is the humanities that allow us to think rigorously about those implications."

Dr. Garrett died an untimely death from cancer in March of 2016.

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Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research

1000 East University Avenue

Department 4036

Laramie, WY 82071

Phone: 307-766-3898

Fax: 307-766-3700


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