How Universities Are Increasing The Utility Of The Humanities

Proponents of the liberal arts continue to claim that nothing is as relevant to long-term career success as a basic grounding in the humanities. And they can point to recent evidence showing that while the income of graduates of liberal arts college -where typically the humanities are still emphasized – may start out lower, in the long run it catches up and often exceeds the economic dividends of other degrees. That’s according to a study released by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Nonetheless, the humanities are struggling, with dramatically fewer graduates majoring in English, history, philosophy, most social sciences, or a foreign language now versus ten years ago. These declines stem from several causes, including student concerns about employability, a lack of clear direction for these majors and the apparent malaise that’s gripped the humanities for years.

Colleges are now redoubling their efforts to demonstrate the relevance of the humanities for students in other fields and also help their humanities majors become more ready for productive careers. In addition to the basic skills honed by the humanities – critical thinking, clear written and oral communication, and cross-cultural competence – institutions have introduced new integrative and immersive experiences and programs to ensure their graduates don’t have to wait years for the liberal arts/humanities advantage to be realized.

These efforts are being offered by large universities and small liberal arts colleges. Once the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is behind us and institutions return to some semblance of normal operations, this kind of curricular integration should take off. Here are three recent examples.

Oberlin College’s Liberal Arts-Centered Integrative Business Concentration

Beginning in 2021, Oberlin College plans to launch an integrative concentration in business that will combine the traditions of a liberal arts education with high-quality experiences in business and finance.

Oberlin’s new concentration, unanimously approved by the faculty, will be available to college and conservatory students, offering them experiential learning and coursework that emphasize core business concepts, networks of mentors, and intensive work-related and project-based experiences.

“Current and prospective students want meaningful ways to connect their liberal arts education to an after-Oberlin path,” says Ron Cheung, professor of economics and chair of the business curricular committee. “An Oberlin credential in business will help our students stand out to cutting-edge employers who already appreciate the long-term value of a liberal arts education, especially when the student is equipped with the range of educational experiences and core business-related skills to launch rapidly within the sector.”

Oberlin students who pursue the concentration are expected to explore the relationship of business to their field of concentration—whether that’s psychology, musical performance, physics, or politics.

The new business concentration has three elements:

  1. A curricular component that stresses basic business content, including accounting, economics, management, and ethics, as well as an applied elective.
  2. An experiential component that gives students hands-on experiences in the world of business.
  3. An integrative component that requires students to apply the theory from the curricular component to the practice of the experiential component.

University of Wisconsin First-Year Interest Groups (FIG)

FIGs are academic learning communities in which student cohorts of about 20 take a series of three courses together. They are meant to bring together disciplines that are typically taught in isolation so that students deepen their understanding of a topic through cross-disciplinary study.

The School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison offered its first business-focused, business-led FIG last fall, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities granted in partnership with UW’s College of Letters and Science. The lead course, “The Sociology and History of American Marketing and Consumer Society,” was taught by Thomas O’Guinn, former chair of Wisconsin’s Department of Marketing, and the Thomas J. Falk Distinguished Chair in Business.

“The first-year interest group is designed to immerse students in marketing, sociology, and history, and most importantly, how they interact. Marketing, and the consumer culture it helped produce, isn’t just about some bag of commercial techniques; marketing was made by, and in turn made, the character of contemporary society. You can’t adequately teach our history without some deeper recognition and understanding of marketing. This class does that, and does it within a supportive, cross-disciplinary learning environment,” according to O’Guinn, who also told me that one of his inspirations for teaching the course was the formative experience he had as a University of Texas freshman in an integrative nine-credit course, “The American Experience.” “That course meant a lot to me, and I wanted to offer something similar to my students,” he said.

In addition to O’Guinn’s course, two other FIGs were aimed at business students, but taught by humanities faculty:

  • “Capitalism in America,” taught by the History Department, with linking courses on microeconomics and sociology of race and ethnicity, and;
  • “Sustainability in the North: Culture, Environment, and the Economy,” taught by the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic Languages.

University of Illinois Professional Resource Center

Humanities majors historically have been less likely than students in other fields to have internships or practicum experiences introducing them to workplace expectations and helping them form relationships with potential employers. That’s a handicap for new graduates searching for their first job or planning a career.

They University of Illinois is trying to remedy that situation. It established a Humanities Professional Resource Center to help humanities students land jobs and maximize career opportunities. The center offers career advising and opportunities specifically focused on helping humanities students turn their knowledge into marketable skills. It assists students seeking to network with alumni and it connects students to employers who are looking for humanities students.

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The business community often complains that college graduates aren’t prepared for real-world employment. One Gallup survey showed that only 33% of business leaders agreed that “higher education institutions in this country are graduating students with the skills and competences that (their) business needs.”

Colleges are responding to these criticisms. Many are adding opportunities for undergraduates to earn various certificates to go along with the traditional baccalaureate degree. Others are introducing “inverted” curricula, where students first take courses that lead to a marketable certificate before going on to complete general education requirements – including the humanities – in the latter years of school.

Students want their education to prepare them for meaningful lives and good careers. Colleges that integrate their curricula to accomplish both goals are serving their students – particularly those majoring in the humanities – and themselves well.

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