Published October 13, 2022

by Reed Dibich

This Op-Ed originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on October 10, 2022.

Reed Dibich

The drive towards optimizing pre-professional pursuits in education is unrelenting: what exactly can you do with a humanities degree after graduation? Every October, as we celebrate National Arts and Humanities Month, I am reminded of these arguments. Why not study something useful like economics, data science, or engineering? What’s more, graduates in these fields appear to enjoy higher salaries in their first jobs. Are the humanities, therefore, a bad career move?

These are the wrong questions. I responded to my classmates at Yale, well, the Marine Corps is hiring humanities majors—and it was. And in basic training, they taught me everything I needed to know. But they could not teach me my personal commitment to America’s purpose in the world, which inspired me to take the oath. I contemplated that only in reflection with the humanities, because the long run of human experience shows that America is a special place. The humanities are not about career outcomes. Studying the humanities is about living a fulfilling life, which is the best career move anyone can make.

The humanities are the most practical and useful field of study, because you learn to read and write well, think for yourself, and ask the biggest questions. As it turns out, these are the qualities that business leaders look for while deciding who to hire and promote. At work, rarely will someone work alone on a difficult problem requiring their individual skills, without technical support, without the need to consult with teammates, and without communicating their progress to others.

We tend to work in teams, and we tend to learn mostly on the job. It’s hard to train someone to think critically or become intellectually curious under the pressure of day-to-day work, because these qualities are cultivated over time. Yet it’s rather easy to teach this same person the hard skills necessary to succeed on the job, like the Marines did for me.

Work prospects aside, studying the humanities is also practical and useful for life. At some point in life, big questions become urgent to us: what does it mean to live a good life? What are the responsibilities of citizenship? What does it mean to be human? And many more. The humanities train you to embrace these questions by interrogating the various answers offered by previous generations. This is not mere history, but also language, literature, art, architecture, and philosophy.

An entire body of human knowledge exists, stored in libraries and museums, replete with human experience and wisdom from over the ages that resembles, reflects, and relates to our own day. While we may be physically constrained to our own lifespans, the humanities allow us to access wisdom and experience from our ancestors, who have faced similar challenges as we do today. In the Marines, we’d often say that we cannot help having a 25-year-old body, but there’s no excuse for not having a 3,000-year-old mind.

The best career advice I ever received was to study the humanities. It began for me at James River High School, where my teachers shared their love of language, literature, and history. My teachers helped me understand that education is not only about finding meaningful work. Education is about learning to lead a fulfilling life. Thankfully, we are fortunate to have preserved so much wisdom and experience from those who came before us. You might try reading what they have to say. It might be the most useful and practical thing you do.

Reed Dibich is a native of Chesterfield County and serves on the board of the Virginia Humanities.

Vanessa Adkins, right, is apprenticing under her cousin Jessica Canaday Stewart learning the finer points of traditional Chickahominy dancing. Photos taken at the Fall Festival and Pow Wow in Charles City on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012.

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