In Defense of a Humanities Education, Opinion Piece

Written by: Joe Lollo

Back when I was applying to colleges back in the fall of 2017, what I was looking for above all else were outstanding programs in the humanities, as I wanted to major in English (or something similar) and become a teacher due to the extremely positive experiences I have had with teachers, and particularly English teachers, since I started going to school. After exploring college guide after college guide, I applied to several schools that I thought fit the bill for me, including all three UW campuses, NYU, the University of Oregon, Seattle University, and Western Washington University. 

I ended up choosing UW Bothell over UW Seattle after getting accepted into both because of UWB’s strength in the humanities, all thanks to the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences (IAS). Hearing about IAS at my Admitted Students’ Day in 2018, I decided that it seemed like a place where I would benefit and grow immensely. I always knew I was going to do something writing, literature, or language-related, both in college and as a career, and never really questioned it, but being where I am now in terms of my academic career was difficult.

I had little exposure to the School of IAS during most of my first year aside from that initial campus visit. Everything I would receive in emails from UWB as an undeclared freshman would be related to STEM or business majors, and there was almost no representation of IAS students on campus when I looked at leadership positions in the clubs I joined or heard about. I felt like that first visit lied to me, and that there was no way for me to advance my learning in what I love. I wanted to transfer out to a university where I’d be a “real English major,” and I did felt no sense of belonging until I ended up being admitted into my IAS majors and taking their classes. 

There is an incorrect assumption in college, especially if you come from a school so prolific in STEM like the UW campuses, that the humanities are “easy” or that students who major in these disciplines are unemployable. It all comes down to the lack of awareness towards what these majors entail – it is easy to look down on these majors as easy if you have no idea of what they truly encompass. 

Mari Çekrezi, a junior double majoring in Community Psychology and Global Studies, is no stranger to these assumptions. “People always tell me that my majors are easy, or don’t exactly understand what they involve,” explained Çekrezi, “but have you ever been hit with a seven-page essay on Asian experimental film as a form of resistance?” Çekrezi, who chose the psychology major due to her interest in the scientific side of the discipline and a career in clinical psychology or counseling, stated that she chose Global Studies to supplement her primary interests and “treat marginalized communities as more than just objects of study,”  and will emphasize her double major in job and graduate school applications. Çekrezi believes that it is “very freeing” to talk in humanities classes compared to the “black & white, right & wrong mindset” that science classes often have. 

But a double major is far from the only path with a humanities degree. There is value to be found in a life spent studying and analyzing texts that, to some extent, society itself has moved away from value. IAS Associate Teaching Professor Raissa DeSmet is no stranger to these misconceptions. “I think that based on what English and history classes are at the high school level, people have some assumptions about what goes on in the humanities,” DeSmet, now in her seventh year at UWB, explained. “People are surprised to find the kind of vibrancy and diversity that goes into a humanities classroom, and where a degree in the humanities can take you.” 

When graduating senior Bryanna Bui first enrolled at UWB, she was sure that she was going to major in business and pursue a career in marketing communications. After taking an art history class with DeSmet in the winter of her sophomore year and adding a creative writing class the following quarter to allow some creativity and diversity into her curriculum, Bui decided to declare the Culture, Literature & the Arts major instead.

Bui believes that the one thing that made studying the humanities truly exciting to her is that it functions as “a chance to fully understand your place in the world, the way you and everyone else think, and improve your ability to read, write, speak, and think about complex topics.”  She is still pursuing a career in marketing and public relations but says that her study of critical dimensions of art makes it easier to understand both “how people think and how the world reacts to things that are ‘aesthetically pleasing,’ or not,”  both of which she believes are more integral to marketing careers than what business schools offer. 

Çekrezi has a similar mindset. She believes that she was given the valuable opportunity to not only understand diverse areas of study but also link academic work to real-life problems. “As we are moving more and more towards a more united and globalized world,” she explained, “I thought it would be important to understand the positive and negative impact of that globalization.” Marwa Popal, a 2020 graduate and Culture, Literature & the Arts major, agrees with this statement, stating that “the subject of literature alone can shape and encompass the human mind and the human heart, which leads people to have their own specific way of thinking.”  

The humanities really are a valuable course of study – it is not only edifying and intellectually stimulating, but fosters many forms of empathy and understanding, too. It is about becoming a full person, which makes it extremely valuable in today’s economic marketplace, and even in STEM jobs. 

To me, however, none of those are the most important thing, even if they are all wonderful perks. I’m currently a double major in Culture, Literature & the Arts and Media & Communication Studies in IAS, and the classroom setting in the humanities is in fact the most beautiful and important part of my education. Maybe this is because I still have this dream of attending graduate school and becoming an educator, but I get excited discussing and analyzing texts, learning and connecting diverse theoretical knowledge, and of course collaborating with other students and hearing their perspectives. I just get a lot of intellectual engagement from working with other students to find meanings that I would not have been able to see on my own. 

It’s about the excitement that comes with learning to read things better than you did before and sitting in a classroom with a group of people fleshing it out together, talking through it. It’s also about the relationships with faculty that you can build, as networking with experts in the things you are interested in can be a very valuable tool to learn more about what careers you can pursue, receive book, movie, and theory recommendations (as I do with a few professors), become a teaching assistant, and even find potential references for your resume and CV. This doesn’t get captured in other educational settings, and especially not in STEM where everything is about following strict rules to find one correct answer and professors are often impersonal. The feeling of being in a collaborative classroom with supportive and encouraging professors, especially in a smaller “liberal arts” class setting like IAS at UWB, is almost magical to me. 

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