Skip to content

Thursday Throwback: The humanities are “useless.” (Unless you want a job. Or to change the world.)

It’s Thursday. I’m busy with some stuff that needs to get done and you need something to read. So take five minutes to browse through one of my faves from a few years ago. It seems especially important this spring that we continue to state the case for the social studies and humanities.


As my two kids weaved their way through middle and high school, they experienced the first waves of STEM, Career Pathways, and the focus by school districts on specific technical skills. As students who were also interested in art, music, and journalism, it became difficult for them to find room in their schedules for those “non-essential” courses.

The reasoning? We need to get kids ready for high paying jobs after graduation. Get them ready for engineering majors in college. For careers in computer science or coding cause that’s where the money is.

Not that STEM and tech and career tracks and coding for 8th graders is necessarily a bad thing. I truly believe that we need to provide all types of learning experiences and opportunities for our students. But it seemed at times as if all of those things were added at the expense of things like art, history, and music.

It’s gotten better as STEM morphed into STEAM and personalized learning plans have become the norm here in the Midwest, giving students more latitude in what and how they study. But I still hear – and maybe you do too – that the liberal arts and humanities classes are “extra” kinds of things in grades 6-12 and something to be completely avoided during any sort of post-secondary experience.

To me, it becomes problematic when there’s a singular focus on specific job skills or career tracks. It’s not just that our students can end up missing out on exploring ways to make sense of and improve the world they live in – developing tolerance, understanding others, building empathy, strengthening communication skills, and solving problems.

It’s also pushes an assumption about the perceived monetary value of some disciplines and the “worthlessness” of others. As social studies teachers, we need to continue to champion the value of what we do. The content and skills that kids learn in a history class are important for everybody, whether they’re repairing wind turbines, managing a hedge fund, or setting up a company wide LAN.

Here’s the point.

What we do every day when we’re working with history and social studies students is incredibly important. And we need to do it well.

Because the skills that kids are learning when they’re with us will help them get all sorts of jobs. And . . . oh yeah, make the world a better place while they’re at it.

George Anders, author of the book You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education, is convinced of the power of a great social studies teacher. Working as Forbes magazine technology reporter, he saw how Silicon Valley

was consumed with this idea that there was no education but STEM education.

But he started chatting with tech company HR folks and heard a different story.

Uber was picking up psychology majors to deal with unhappy riders and drivers. Opentable was hiring English majors to bring data to restauranteurs to get them excited about what that data could do for their restaurants.

I began to realize that the ability to communicate and get along with people, and understand what’s on other people’s minds, and do full-strength critical thinking – all of these things were valued and appreciated by everyone as important job skills, except the media.

When asked by BBC to list the three most job market ready skills of a humanities graduate down to three, it didn’t take Anders long:

Creativity, curiosity and empathy. Empathy is usually the biggest one . . . it means an ability to understand the needs and wants of a diverse group of people.

I ran into Anders and his book after falling into an Internet rabbit holes caused by a couple of articles this morning in my Flipboard feed. They said the same thing. One article asked employers to list the importance of soft skills:

June 12 Edsurge article highlighted a panel discussion that focused on conversations of a variety of recent college graduates. The common thread running through their comments was the importance of skills they learned during humanities classes in meaningful and rewarding employment.

A web developer noted that his previous experiences as an art handler and a gallery manager share some common threads with the work he does today. Studying the arts led him to 3D printing and digital fabrication:

that was my entry point into technology.

And some research is suggesting that a humanities background rather than a professional track increases salary in a particular field. Pre-law makes sense if you want to become a lawyer. But students who major in philosophy, history, or ethnic studies earn up to $54,000 more as lawyers than those who followed a pre-law track.


Looking for courses that focus on literacy skills, speaking, problem solving, and critical thinking? The use of evidence to make claims? Working collaboratively? All while exploring ideas, events, and cultures of diverse groups of people?

Few courses of study are quite as heavy on these soft skills as the liberal arts, in particular the social sciences – whether that’s through writing argumentative essays, debating the value of current and past governmental policies, comparing historical events to contemporary issues, reading fiction as part of a geography course, or analyzing historical evidence.

Done poorly, history and the social sciences can be a waste of time. Absolutely.

But when done well? A history class becomes the springboard to all sorts of vocational possibilities . . . while making the world a better place all at the same time.

The start of the 2019-2020 school year is closer than you think. Now’s the time to ask yourself:

How can my class help students pay the bills and change the world? How am I encouraging the building and strengthening of soft skills?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Work with Me page.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: