Benefits for Life

The Benefits of a Humanities Major Extend Beyond the Marketplace

Many resist arguments that focus on the market value of majoring in the humanities, arguing that the narrow focus on return on investment obscures the many other benefits of the major. Moreover, market-based arguments undermine the notion that education is also essential to cultivating well-rounded individuals and informed citizens.

This section makes the case that the benefits of majoring in the humanities are lifelong and extend beyond the marketplace. While there are anecdotal data and several essays that attest to these lifelong benefits, the empirical data to this effect is somewhat limited.

Several researchers are currently working to fill this gap through social scientific research into the non-market based benefits of studying the humanities. James Pawelski of the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center recently received a three-year grant from the Templeton Religion Trust to analyze the role the arts and humanities play in human flourishing. Harvard’s Humanities and Liberal Arts Assessment project, founded in 2012, is also conducting empirical research on the value of the humanities to human development. The Mellon Foundation is embarking on a research initiative to move beyond our assumptions about the role of  liberal arts education in preparing “individuals to be well-rounded members and leaders in our society, democracy, and economy.” This initiative will look to uncover “the evidence that exists or could be generated about the value and effectiveness of a liberal arts education.”

This section combines extant empirical work with essays and observations about the value of the humanities in cultivating well-rounded individuals. As Martha Nussbaum writes in her recent book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, the humanities teach citizens “to assess historical evidence, to use and think critically about economic principles, to assess accounts of social justice, to speak a foreign language, to appreciate the complexities of the major world religions.” This section of the toolkit highlights the empirical data from the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University and the Department of Education regarding the correlation between studying the humanities and civic engagement. It also points to arguments like Nussbaum’s that seek to explain the mechanism by which the humanities cultivate civic engagement.

This section also makes the case that the humanities encourage an ability to understand others’ perspectives. We point to data from a burgeoning field of researchers who have presented empirical evidence to this effect. The 2016 work of David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano finds that long-term engagement with literary fiction improves one’s ability to understand others' thoughts and feelings. Recent findings from neuroscience, meanwhile, show that reading literature stimulates brain networks required for understanding others. In another recent study, Richard A. Detweiler found that students who participated in philosophical or ethical discussions in college and took ample humanities classes were “more likely than others to volunteer, give to nonprofit groups, and become otherwise altruistic.”

Finally, the humanities are often credited with helping students to lead fulfilled lives. This section draws on data from the Humanities Indicators to show that humanities majors are quite satisfied with their careers and the reflections of students and scholars of how the humanities cultivate fulfillment.