Columns, Opinions

Johnson ’20: Don’t overlook the humanities

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, December 4, 2018

In 2016, Ugur Cetintemel, a professor of computer science and the department’s chair, described in a Herald article that one in five current undergraduates will have taken a computer science course before graduation. Students at Brown are becoming more interested in computer science courses because the skills they learn in these classes can be applied to various jobs, according to a 2017 Herald article. Within elite research universities, the percentage of students pursuing humanities degrees has dropped from 17 percent to 11 percent in the past decade. Most academics attribute this major shift to the lingering effects of the Great Recession. Many students value financial stability, and sometimes that does affect the path they choose when it comes to their concentrations. The most recent Herald poll found that 40.4 percent of Brown students rank salary as one of their top two considerations when choosing a career. While it is a valid concern to have some plan for financial stability in the future, students should not allow this to deter them from studying the humanities if that’s their interest. Even as a computer science concentrator, I have found that some of the best classes I have taken have been in the humanities, learning about how ideas have evolved and developed over time to inspire social changes.

One of the distinctive aspects of Brown is the open curriculum, which allows students the freedom to develop their own “core classes.” And while Brown provides students with the freedom to craft an education within their interests, the open curriculum gives students the opportunity to be open to ideas, people and perspectives that they might not otherwise have discovered. By taking a humanities course or concentrating in a humanities degree, students not only learn how to be informed and critical citizens, but they also develop communication and writing skills, which are vital for many jobs.

There are also many Brown alums whose background in the humanities helped them develop businesses and pursue innovative ideas. For instance, after graduating with American History and American Studies degrees, respectively, Tom First ’89 and Tom Scott ’89 decided they wanted to stay in Nantucket, M.A. and work odd jobs like shucking scallops and shampooing dogs to pay for rent. For a Nantucket cooking contest, First decided to enter on a whim by trying to recreate a peach drink he had in Spain and went on to win the contest. After that, though neither of them took a business course at Brown and both failed an accounting course, they decided to start selling the juice off of Scott’s boat. They named their business Nantucket Nectars. Despite some initial business mistakes, the company made $15 million in sales in 1995. They eventually decided to sell a major portion of the company to Ocean Spray in 1997 for $70 million.  Currently, First works with a private equity firm that invests in inventive consumer brands and Scott focuses his time on the Nantucket Project, a conference held on Nantucket Harbor that brings prominent thinkers together in conversation on a variety of issues. In frequent guest lectures in ENGN 0090: “Management of Industrial and Nonprofit Organizations,” First and Scott underscore the role that studying the humanities played in helping them understand how to relate to people and create an impactful business.

First and Scott aren’t the only Brown alums whose humanities degrees led them to an unexpected career in a new niche. Molly Rosen Guy ’99 graduated with a humanities degree but initially faced trouble in her writing career. She sold a book to Grove Press, but her book contract eventually dissolved after she saw how many edits it required. While she was working at a beauty copywriting job that she hated, Guy was planning a wedding and couldn’t find the small, edgy boutique she imagined would be in New York. So, without any experience in business or fashion, she decided to create her own boutique, Stone Fox Bride. This boutique has been a success for many years. Now, she is the creative director of Stone Fox Bride, the contributing editor of Vogue.com and the executive weddings editor at Domino, an American home magazine.

These Brown alums gained valuable skills from their humanities degree that allowed them to be successful on their own terms later in life. This does not even count the hundreds of humanities graduates annually who go into fields like law, government and public service. Since the humanities focuses on the study of human society and culture, people who study these fields are able to develop interpersonal and writing skills. Even though these Brown alums did not initially have any background in the new fields that they ended up pursuing, they were able to use their abilities to understand and relate to their audiences to sell their innovative ideas. Their stories highlight how humanities degrees can offer intangible value to careers and encourage individuals to take unexpected risks. As STEM fields become more and more popular, it is important not to lose sight of the value that these interpersonal skills provide.

Though expected salary and financial security are important considerations, undergraduate students should not let the fear of a nontraditional career path deter them from their passion in the humanities. It may be a good idea to take a couple classes in some STEM fields to learn some tangible skills in the job market; but humanities courses challenge students to think creatively and critically about the world we live in. Whether it’s a philosophy course that forces students to ask ethical questions or a history course that allows them to understand the past, humanities courses push students to gain knowledge of the human experience. STEM courses will certainly teach students to innovate, but humanities will teach them how to use that knowledge to make a meaningful impact in their careers and beyond.

Chanel Johnson ’20 can be reached at chanel_johnson@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.