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What do humanities graduates do after graduation?

Many, not surprisingly, become teachers. Others go to graduate school or law school. Still others pursue jobs in sales, business operations or administrative support. But a very large number become managers.

Indeed, humanities majors are especially likely to become managers.

Management is an exceptionally broad occupational category, and levels of pay and responsibility vary widely. Nevertheless, managers generally receive higher salaries and have greater autonomy and authority and opportunities for professional advancement than most other employees.

This is true, even though these college graduates didn’t pursue a career-oriented degree.

In today’s economy, effective managers are among the keys to an organization’s success.

Even though most humanities graduates have no formal management training, it’s not surprising that many assume that role, for a humanities education actually provides quite a good foundation for the functions managers perform.

  • Managers manage people—they motivate, delegate, supervise, evaluate and resolve interpersonal problems.
  • Managers run a unit or an organization—they plan, coordinate, organize and acquire and direct resources.
  • Managers administer—they make recommendations and decisions, set priorities, establish timetables, solve problems, write reports, and make presentations.

Given the reality that many of our graduates will become managers, what could humanities disciplines do to better prepare their majors for the jobs that they’re likely to acquire?

Spoiler alert: the answer is unlikely to be courses in the philosophies of management, leadership in literature or the history of business administration. Nor is it enough to cede responsibility to a career center.

What prompts me to raise this topic is a recent report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

As Robert B. Townsend, who oversees humanities, arts and culture programs for the academy and maintains the organization’s Humanities Indicators, pointed out to me, the headlines of two recent articles about the report are telling in the contradictory message that they convey.

One article is entitled “Humanities Graduates Are Happy With Their Lives.” The other: “US humanities graduates feel unprepared for life beyond college.”

Feeling contented yet unprepared: How can these two opposing emotions be reconciled?

Partly, I suspect, it’s because graduates’ new roles and responsibilities require them to stretch and grow and call on skills and strengths that these degree holders barely knew they had.

How, then, can humanities departments best set up their majors for postgraduation success and happiness?

Here are some strategies that humanities departments could adopt.

  1. Familiarize humanities faculty with the kinds of jobs their majors pursue. Few follow in the faculty’s footsteps. That certainly doesn’t mean that humanists should forgo teaching their specialties. But it does mean that we should never—ever—badmouth jobs outside traditional humanities fields. If we want to clone ourselves, we will be doomed to disappointment.
  2. Departments need to do a better job of articulating the value of a humanities education. Pablum and clichés won’t cut it. I have encountered departmental websites that offer an endless array of jobs that graduates perform (diplomat, social worker, market analyst). Be explicit about the transferable skills that your department’s courses impart.
  3. Integrate relevant skills into departmental curricula and individual courses. Please don’t think for a moment that I want departments to offer management-lite courses. If an organization needs expertise in accounting, financial modeling, HR or marketing, it will hire specialists in those fields. But managing people, conducting research, making public presentations, undertaking strategic planning, even working with data—these are areas where humanities majors should shine. We can certainly cultivate these skills in our classes.
  4. Encourage majors to move outside their comfort zone and acquire skills that will be useful postgraduation. Obvious examples include urging students to study the digital humanities or digital history.

What specifically should we do in our classes?

In addition to teaching content, build skills. Have students deliver oral presentations and write for a variety of audiences in diverse styles. Get them to work in teams and undertake projects with authentic outcomes. Give them responsibility for co-teaching the class and make sure that you provide substantive, constructive feedback.

Remember: what employers value most are the soft skills that the humanities nurtures.

A humanities degree does not require majors to take a vow of poverty. Nor should a humanities degree holder feel as if they’re forsaking their discipline and calling if they fail to enter a graduate or professional program or take a job other than one in a school, a museum or an archive.

The humanities is what makes us human. It increases our capacity for empathy; exposes us to the human condition in its rich, sometimes heart-wrenching, complexity; leads us to ask basic questions of ethics and meaning; and challenges us to view works of art, music and literature from fresh perspectives. It also allows us to commune with the divine and experience the transcendent.

One can always be a card-carrying humanist irrespective of one’s job. All one has to do is read, think critically and analytically, savor the arts, and ponder life’s deepest questions.

Freud wrote that “the cornerstones of humaneness” lie in work and love: in productive labor and love in its various manifestations, of which one is surely the love of the creativity, insights and depths of emotion offered by the humanities.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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