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You Decide: Are The Humanities Still Useful In A Tech World?

Aerial view of Belltower and downtown Raleigh to the east of campus.

By Dr. Mike Walden

My wife is part of a shrinking group of people. She is low-tech! Yes, she has a smart phone and a tablet – complements of me – but she reluctantly uses them. Many days she forgets to turn them on, and even if they’re on, she’ll forget to check for messages. Rather than texting or emailing, she still likes writing letters, making phone calls or – better yet – talking to people in person.

In college, she preferred courses in foreign languages, literature and her personal favorite – art.   She still loves these topics and learning about the human experience and culture. Many of her friends only half- jokingly say she would have been better suited to live in the 16th or 17th centuries rather than the 21st!

The courses my wife focused on in college are broadly labelled the humanities. Although there are various definitions, most define the humanities to include language, literature, history, philosophy and the arts.  

There is a question today about how relevant the humanities are to an increasingly technological world. Certainly college students are usually required to take some humanities courses to have a well-rounded education, but that’s different than majoring in the humanities.

Indeed, the fields that are receiving the most attention today are the “STEM” majors – science, technology, engineering, and math. There are even elementary, middle and high schools that specialize in training youths for studying the STEM fields in college.   

As one who follows trends in the economy, the encouragement of STEM studies certainly makes logical sense. There is no question technology is ruling the economy, and its reign will only expand in the future.  

Today we have smart phones, tablets, laptops and the Internet that are essential to both our work and home. Tomorrow’s tech advances are expected to be in areas like virtualization, 3-D manufacturing, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics and supercomputers. We’ll certainly need more smart workers in the STEM areas to develop and apply the next phase of our tech world.

It seems as if students are getting the message to pursue STEM majors. Since 2000, STEM majors nationwide increased 63 percent compared to a 25 percent increase for humanities majors.

So is the case closed? In our tech-heavy society, will STEM majors flourish while humanities majors flounder?

Maybe not! While agreeing the need for STEM graduates will continue to increase, there are some futurists predicting that as technology becomes increasingly sophisticated and more pervasive, training in the humanities will actually become more – not less – valuable.

Here’s their reasoning. With technology taking over more and more of our lives, we have become more machine-oriented and less human-focused. I witness this all the time on college campuses. Whereas decades ago students would move between classes and buildings engaged in lively conversation, now most of them have their heads down looking at their smart phones.  Many times I’ve had to shout “look up” before a student was about to crash into me.  

Then, of course, there are the jokes about individuals having meals together who communicate with each other through texting rather than simply speaking across the table. And you know what is said about jokes – they’re never too far from reality.

So there’s a worry individuals are losing the ability to relate to others on a personal face-to-face basis. And in the business world, especially at the management level, face-to-face interpersonal communications are still vital. Most major decisions are still made that way. Individuals schooled in the humanities, through their study of literature, language, history and the expression of ideas and feelings through the arts, have a background that fits this need.

There’s another reason for the relevance of humanities in our current world. Some thinkers say the application of the next level of technology to human use will require a cultural change, and developers of new technology will have to understand this cultural shift in order to be successful.  

Robots and driverless vehicles are good examples. Although it’s fun to think of these tools in abstract, when they become a reality, how will we react? Robots and driverless vehicles mean a shift in control and power from humans to machines that we have never experienced before. How will we react? Will robots and driverless vehicles be commercial successes or financial flops because people couldn’t adapt to them?

Obviously developers and manufacturers want to know, and who better than to guide them than individuals who have studied human culture – that is, those who have studied the humanities.

There have already been studies indicating a new found appreciation of humanities experts in today’s high-tech economy. Many companies have discovered humanities majors make excellent managers and decision-makers.

So in the race between the STEMS and the HUMIES (my short-cut for the humanities), it may be too early for us to decide who will come out on top!

Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor and Extension Economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University who teaches and writes on personal finance, economic outlook, and public policy.