The Value of the Humanities Major

By: Aya Hayashi

When I decided to switch from a pre-veterinary medicine track to musicology during the spring semester of my junior year of college, I might as well have dropped a bomb on my parents.  My father was (and probably still is) convinced that I’m going to die poor.

Frankly, I, too, fear for my current and future welfare, especially when articles like this one from the New York Times appear.  It notes that the number of students enrolled in humanities majors has decreased significantly in recent years.  If anything, general education requirements in the humanities often appear as an obstacles to graduation rather than life-long benefits.  (Some of the student comments on my Rate My Professor page attest to that!)  As Bard College’s president Leon Botstein states, “We have failed to make a case that [the skills taught in humanities courses] are as essential to engineers and scientists and businessmen as to philosophy professors.”

So what’s a poor musicologist to do?  Hidden in the middle of the article is a quote by Franco Moretti, director of the Stanford Literary Lab.  He says, “…if you wonder what will happen to the humanities, you can choose to be threatened, or you can be invigorated.  I choose to be invigorated.”  And there’s where I find my call.

For people working in the humanities, this is a call to be relevant, to engage our society and culture, to write articles and books that appeal to people outside of our specialized ivory towers.  It’s identical to the call given to Christians of the “scattered” church.

Graduate school has taught me to face my doubts, to question, and to challenge.  It has made my faith stronger.  It has shown me that my God does not want me to follow blindly.  He is the author of my mind and the creator of these beautiful pieces to which I have dedicated my life to study.  To those of you reading this who may have thought your Shakespeare or music/art history class was not the best use of your time, I challenge you to dust off your old textbook from one of your humanities courses.  (I know you still have it!)  Open to Shakespeare’s sonnets; ponder Plato’s Poetics; look at one of Van Gogh’s paintings; listen to Beethoven’s Fifth or some polyrhythmic West African music.  Maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of his glory that you hadn’t seen when you thought the class was drudgery.