Learning about the Humanities Abroad

Matt Bowser

Nobody needs me to tell them that interest in the humanities is declining. A quick Google search  on “decline in humanities graduates” will turn up pages and pages of articles, op-eds, and blog posts, as exemplified here or here. These articles will tell you about how students are turning increasingly toward the “practical” college degrees in the STEM fields, and how humanities are often considered to be a waste of time in a world that needs more doctors, scientists, and engineers.

I will not argue with this point. The world does need more doctors, scientists, and engineers. But I will also argue that all students going into these and other “practical” fields should at least get some education in the humanities. Humanities courses in fields such as English teach students critical thinking skills, creativity, how to express oneself properly in both speaking and writing, and crucially, how to use logic to argue a point effectively. Increasingly, the job market has atrophied in these skills due to the focus on STEM, and Silicon Valley tech giants are turning toward humanities graduates for a source of these qualities. Technical expertise can be taught in on-the-job training, but creativity and critical thinking should be what you receive in a college education. Northeastern University, where I am pursuing my PhD and serve as a professor, has created a sort of hybrid undergraduate major in this regard, International Affairs, in which both aspiring diplomats and politicians as well as future entrepreneurs and businesspeople learn about the wider world while pursuing their degree.

Apart from basic employability, I know from my own personal field, history, that learning about other societies and cultures, international affairs, the historical factors that led to our present day, and achieving basic understandings of the global economy and geopolitics are key to living a fulfilling and informed life. Nobody wants to be caught off-guard when hearing about the war in Syria, or the refugee crisis in Myanmar, and know nothing about it. Especially in an era in which unbiased information is ever harder to get and false information proliferates our public discourse, being well-informed on history and global affairs is crucial. And where better to learn about global affairs than outside the United States?

Which leads me (finally) to my point: Even if you intend on majoring in STEM, computer science, business, or some other technical field in college, you should make an effort to learn about the world around you, and the best way to do that is to get out into that world. Whether you choose to study abroad at your college, through your high school, or even on your own initiative, that time will be your gateway to an immersive understanding of the wider world in which you live. I know from my personal experience teaching and leading students throughout Europe for Abbey Road’s Western Civilization program that such an experience not only changes students’ worldviews forever but also makes them more well-rounded, interesting, and more worldly people.

In addition, we are cursed to live in interesting times. As an historian, I am particularly equipped to join the chorus of experts warning that we are entering a period of history that will involve rapid, and likely destructive, socioeconomic change. At a time of rising extremism and the undermining of democratic principles, we must have a well-informed, well-travelled, and well-rounded voting population to understand the issues and not fall for propaganda: Where better to learn about democracy than at the foot of the Parthenon in Greece? At a time of approaching climate cataclysms, where better to discuss dealing with natural disasters than in the ruins of Pompeii in Italy? At a time when future financial crises loom over our heads, where better to discuss improving our economic systems than at the birthplace of capitalism and industry in the old factories of Manchester or Liverpool, England? In the crises to come, we will need more experts on these matters than we do businessmen or lawyers.

By experiencing the subject matter firsthand through travel, not only will students’ education in the humanities be more immersive, more effective, and more relatable, but it will also make students more well-rounded as individuals. At a job interview, half of your chance for success will come from your work experience and the other half will come from your personability, creativity, and ability to think on your feet (critical thinking), all of which will improve greatly from experience with stepping outside of your comfort zone. And aside from employability, becoming a more informed and worldly person will be fulfilling in-and-of itself, speaking from personal experience of course.

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