What Are the Humanities?

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Updated on May 24, 2023
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  • Part of the liberal arts, the humanities promote critical thinking, analysis, and creativity.
  • Unlike the social sciences, the humanities focus more on qualitative analysis.
  • Popular humanities majors include English, foreign languages, and history.
  • A humanities degree can prepare you for careers in writing, teaching, and advertising.

Humanities students learn about the rise and fall of empires, ancient and modern languages, and poetry of the Romantic era. As a core part of a liberal arts education, the humanities investigate literature, the past, culture, and human values. While learning about these topics, humanities majors also strengthen their research, writing, and critical thinking skills.

But what are the humanities? And what kinds of jobs can you get with a humanities degree?

What Is "Humanities" Exactly?

The humanities entail the study of the human world and society from a critical perspective. This field includes popular majors like English, history, and philosophy. In these disciplines, students investigate humanity itself (hence the name), applying critical methods to help them understand literature, art, and the past, as well as human morality, culture, and values.

Each humanities discipline relies on unique interpretation methods. Historians use the historical method, which can be further divided into branches like cultural history, quantitative history, and oral history.

Meanwhile, English and foreign languages use textual criticism to interpret sources, and philosophy applies conceptual analysis and experimental approaches.

How Do Colleges Define Humanities?

Most universities break down the humanities into different majors and group them together in a humanities division within a College of Arts and Sciences.

Here are some examples of humanities majors you could pursue:

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    Area/ethnic studies
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    Art history
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    Comparative literature
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    Drama and music
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    Foreign languages
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    Gender studies
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    Religious studies

Some colleges combine artistic majors with the humanities, meaning visual and performing arts majors like music, painting, and dance would fall under the "arts and humanities" umbrella.

Certain humanities disciplines may even straddle the boundary between humanities and social sciences. For example, many universities consider history and linguistics social sciences rather than humanities subjects. But how exactly do these two fields differ?

A redheaded woman in a plaid flannel shirt and numerous bracelets sits at a desk in a college classroom surrounded by fellow students and smiles at the camera.

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Humanities vs. Social Science: How Do They Differ?

The humanities and social sciences are two components that make up the liberal arts (along with the arts and natural sciences). Although both disciplines investigate the human world and society, each relies on different methods and poses different types of questions.

Whereas English and philosophy majors critically analyze literature and ethics, economics and anthropology majors study society using more quantitative approaches. Unlike social science majors, humanities majors rarely use mathematical or statistical data in their analyses. Rather, they make interpretive and theoretical arguments about their subjects.

Unlike social science majors, humanities majors rarely use mathematical or statistical data in their analyses.

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That said, some fields blur the line between the humanities and social sciences. History, for example, is a core humanities discipline that often relies on quantitative research and methods normally used in sociology and political science.

The humanities also boast a longer history than the social sciences. While social science disciplines date back to the 19th century, the humanities were studied long before then by the ancient Greeks and other classical-era scholars.

During the Renaissance, the studia humanitatis ("studies of humanity") became an integral part of the European education system. With a focus on classics, philosophy, history, and rhetoric, the humanities aimed to transform students into educated citizens.

What Are the Most Popular Humanities Majors?

Well over 100,000 students earn a bachelor's degree in a humanities subject each year.

Popular humanities majors include English, history, religious studies, philosophy, and art history.

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According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 40,000 English language and literature majors graduated in 2018. That same year, 17,000 students majored in a foreign language, and just under 10,000 students earned a degree in philosophy and religious studies. General liberal arts and humanities degrees accounted for another 44,000 majors.

Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce ranks all majors by their popularity. After business and education, humanities and the liberal arts make up the third most popular area of specialization for college students.

Within the humanities, most students major in English, history, religious studies, art history, philosophy, a foreign language, or area/ethnic studies. Many also pursue a general humanities or liberal arts major.

The Role of the Humanities in Higher Education

The liberal arts consist of the humanities, arts, social sciences, and natural sciences. The humanities focus on critically interpreting culture and humanity and teach valuable skills, making them a central component of most colleges' general education requirements.

Humanities Classes as General Education Requirements

Colleges require general education courses in part thanks to Renaissance-era humanists who promoted the humanities. These people argued for a well-rounded, balanced curriculum that fostered critical thinking and other key intellectual skills.

Most U.S. universities require multiple humanities courses in their gen ed curriculum.

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Today, colleges use gen ed requirements to introduce students to a variety of disciplines and strengthen their analytical and problem-solving skills.

Most U.S. universities require multiple humanities courses in their gen ed curriculum. UCLA's gen ed requirements include classes in literary and cultural analysis, philosophical and linguistic analysis, and historical analysis.

In comparison, Williams College requires at least three courses each in the humanities, social sciences, and science/math, as well as two writing-intensive courses that often come from the humanities.

The 5 Essential Skills Gained From Humanities Courses

Humanities courses teach students about far more than just the French Revolution and William Shakespeare's plays. Students gain valuable skills from humanities courses, such as the ability to communicate effectively, work independently and in teams, and interpret information.

The following transferable skills have been shown to aid humanities majors on the job market:

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    Writing Skills

    Humanities majors write a lot of essays, which helps them learn how to form evidence-based arguments, communicate clearly to their audience, and write persuasively. With research papers, students must thoroughly evaluate the information and present it logically and concisely.

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    Research Abilities

    Research and writing go hand in hand. Humanities students learn to identify relevant details, analyze sources, and draw useful information from their research; they must also present logical and cogent conclusions. Students work with a variety of sources, including primary sources, analytical texts, surveys, and images.

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    Literature and history majors examine texts, whereas foreign language and English majors analyze grammatical constructions and rhetorical techniques. A humanities degree can help students develop strong analytical skills, as they must think critically about sources and build logical arguments based on their analyses. While the social sciences and natural sciences rely more on quantitative sources, critical analysis in the humanities primarily uses qualitative sources.

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    Humanities classes promote creativity, teaching students to think in complex, nuanced ways and set aside assumptions. Being able to propose innovative solutions or come up with new ways for communicating ideas can help professionals in all types of fields, including business and STEM, which heavily emphasize creative problem-solving.

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    Critical Thinking

    The humanities are known for their focus on building critical thinking skills. Coursework that asks students to analyze numerous sources, synthesize the material, and construct a persuasive argument trains them to approach information with a critical eye. Students also learn to identify bias and use logical reasoning.

Employers in many industries prioritize candidates with the above humanities skills. According to a 2019 report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), a majority of employers experienced trouble finding job candidates with strong critical thinking, interpersonal, and communication skills.

Additionally, around 75% of employers believe these essential "soft" skills can help employees progress into leadership roles.

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, claims that a humanities major teaches these exact skills.

"I was a philosophy major," Pasquerella told SHRM. "We composed arguments about issues, responded to objections, developed a capacity to imagine what it's like to be in the shoes of someone different, to listen critically, and to consider points of view that might call into question your fundamental beliefs."

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The Professional Value of a Humanities Degree

Research from Georgetown shows that at the start of their careers, humanities degree-holders earn around $29,000 per year, or slightly below the median salary for all college majors ($33,000). This median income for humanities majors increases to $52,000 for graduates with five or more years of work experience.

These wages may look low compared with other majors, but they're not set in stone.

One way humanities majors can increase their earning potential is by obtaining a graduate degree. These days, over 40% of humanities majors pursue advanced training. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences reports that a graduate degree in any field can increase a humanities major's earnings by as much as $20,000 per year.

What Jobs Can You Get in the Humanities?

Unlike graduates with career-focused degrees, humanities majors do not graduate and apply for a job as a humanist. That said, many humanities majors pursue careers in fields that are closely related to their major.

Many humanities majors pursue careers in fields that are closely related to their major.

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English majors, for instance, often establish careers in writing or editing, while foreign-language majors may choose to put their language skills to the test as an interpreter or translator.

Archivists and museum workers tend to have humanities backgrounds as well, though some positions may require a graduate degree. If you wish to work as a historian for an archive, government agency, or research organization, you'll most likely need at least a master's degree.

On PayScale's 2019 College Salary Report, some of the highest-paying jobs for humanities majors include communications director, content marketing manager, instructional designer, and technical writer, with mid-career salaries of over $65,000 per year. Each of these positions closely aligns with the skills you gain in a humanities degree program.

Median Humanities Salaries

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Additional Career Paths for Humanities Degree-Holders

The versatility of a humanities degree prepares graduates to work in a number of fields, such as education, business, government, library science, and law.

One popular career for humanities majors is teaching, as several secondary school subjects draw directly from the humanities. For example, English majors may work as language arts and literature teachers, whereas history majors can teach social studies, world history, or civics. Note that you'll likely need to complete additional educational requirements to obtain a teaching license.

Public relations, advertising, and communications are also common paths for humanities majors since these fields require strong persuasive, analytical, and communication skills. What's more, several of these fields offer six-figure salaries at the managerial level. Advertising managers and public relations managers can each earn over $115,000 a year.

“As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important.”. Source: — Brad Smith and Harry Shum, “The Future Computed”

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A background in the humanities can even provide a solid foundation for law school. A 2018 study found that English, history, philosophy, and the general arts and humanities were among the top 10 majors for law students.

The tech industry, too, likes to hire humanities majors. In their 2018 book on the future of artificial intelligence (AI), Microsoft president Brad Smith and former executive vice president of AI and research Harry Shum argue, "Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology, and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical, and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions."

Although professionals with a humanities degree must think creatively about how to apply their abilities to different industries, soft skills like research, communication, and critical thinking are guaranteed to appeal to employers in every sector.

Should You Get a Humanities Degree?

Humanities majors study great works of literature, complicated philosophical questions, and ancient civilizations. While earning a humanities degree, students also develop critical thinking, communication, and analytical skills.

One report states that 87% of humanities majors are satisfied with their jobs, a figure that rises to 90% for those with an advanced degree. Humanities majors also boast a relatively low 4.3% unemployment rate.

Furthermore, 60% of humanities majors work in managerial or supervisory roles, meaning that most humanities graduates will eventually progress into leadership positions, earning them more money in the long run.

Clearly, for many students, a humanities degree can really pay off. But as is the case with any major, you must be willing to work hard and take risks if you hope to be successful.

Additional Humanities Resources

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