The value of a humanities degree in a competitive job market isn’t always clear—and that could be one reason that humanities grads have declined ten percent from 2012 to 2015, according to figures from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Associate Professor Amber Day teaches in the Literary and Cultural Studies department at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., where the majority of students major in business but take a compulsory minor in humanities. We spoke to her about the downward trend and how she deals with students who think their General Education requirements are a waste of time.

How do you respond to the argument that a humanities degree doesn’t prepare students for a competitive job market?

I think it’s received wisdom that’s entirely not true. I don’t think a lot of students know this but there’s been a ton of articles that have come out lately by employers saying, “Help! Our workforce doesn’t know how to think and how to write properly. What we want are critical thinkers and good communicators and that’s not we’re getting.” Recently, I’ve even started prefacing my Introduction to Literary Studies class by having students read those articles.

And what do humanities professors like yourself say are the transferable skills?

The things that you can bring to any profession are being able to do research, information literacy and deconstructing a problem to see it from a number of different angles. Also, you can develop more empathy by reading stories about lives outside of your personal experience. One of the learning outcomes that Bryant has come up with is diversity awareness, because it’s important to think about the world through the experience of somebody else.

That does seem like it would be useful in business.

Absolutely. You have to understand how other people might respond to your product or marketing campaign. But again, education was never just about specific job training. You’re getting a broad set of cognitive skills and you’re developing a mastery in one area just to prove you can do it. That requires work, thinking and discipline. Some English majors, for instance, use their skills in the publishing industry, but many don’t. A lot go into marketing, or work for Fortune 500 companies. Also, those skills just make you a better human being.

Better human being? How so?

On a more heady level, there’s something to be said for looking at your world with a critical eye—not just having the world come at you, but feeling like you can deconstruct what you’re seeing on television and in other media. But also, people have to get a mortgage and buy a car. Wouldn’t it be nice if you felt you knew how to do research and find the information you need, rather than just reading the first thing that comes up in a Google search? Part of information literacy is understanding when you need information, how to find it and then how to evaluate what you find, because there’s a lot of information out there.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Micah Toub

Micah Toub

Micah Toub is a Toronto-based freelance writer and former columnist for The Globe and Mail. His memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, was published by W.W. Norton and Doubleday Canada.