Why Study Humanities

When I was in Secondary school, my school dictated that everyone must study two humanities subjects and my class was to be a History and Geography class. However, I only wanted to take History and English Literature.

Fortunately, there were five other classmates. We went to the Principal’s office to appeal and he agreed to shift us to another class and we only went back to our original class for Chinese language. I am retelling this story to tell you about my passion for humanities, especially History.

Subsequently, I took ‘A’ Level History and English Literature and when I enrolled in University, I took Southeast Asian studies. Many relatives asked me jokingly if I wanted to be a teacher. You might think: they were prophetic, weren’t they? Well. I did do something else before becoming a teacher, so I guess they were only half right.

The idea that studying humanities only produces teachers is not confined to Singapore. It is found all over the world. This idea has been exacerbated by the drive towards STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) due to the current technology-driven world. For example, China wants to convert 42 universities into world-class science and technology institutions.

What is Humanities?

However, studying humanities is not as useless as it seems. Let us agree on some basic definition of Humanities and what sort of subjects they cover. Humanities help people understand, appreciate and produce theatre, art, music and literature. They encourage understanding of the world by exploring people, societies and governments.

At the ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, they include subjects like languages (English and Mother Tongue), History, Geography, Social Studies and Literature (in all its variations).

At the university level, Humanities include history, literature, performing arts, philosophy, theology, anthropology and social sciences.

Let me explain why humanities subjects are useful through these two ideas:

1. Employability

In recent years, many employers employ humanities graduates. For example, hiring managers in Uber hire psychology majors to deal with ‘unhappy riders and drivers.’ Another IT company named OpenTable hires English majors to package data to restaurant owners so that they will be enthused to join OpenTable.

Employers want employees that have effective oral and written communication, and critical and analytical reasoning to solve complex problems. They also want employees that can connect choices to ethical decisions. All these skills are naturally mastered by humanities graduates.

Some naysayers argue that STEM subjects also help with critical thinking. However, studying humanities goes beyond just problem-solving. It encourages one to fully reflect on the bigger picture of the human condition and think about complex moral issues.

Some argue that effective communication can also be learnt outside humanities. However, there is no subject other than humanities that has put so much emphasis on reading, writing and debate. It is unlikely to find a better practitioner of communication than a humanities student. This is especially so in grey areas where data is limited.

Furthermore, humanities teach empathy. This means getting people of diverse backgrounds and motivations to work together. In this increasingly diverse world, this has become even more important.

In a world that is increasingly driven by technology, we forget that technology is only as good as the people manipulating it. Thus, humanities graduates can complement STEM graduates in putting in humanistic elements to technology.

2. Real-World Data

If my previous argument has not persuaded you, let us look at job statistics for humanities students. Research has found that 55% of corporate leaders studied humanities-based subjects.

Other studies support this as they show that CEOs in publicly traded companies in the London Stock Exchange are mostly humanities graduates. Hence, having a humanities degree gives workers a good, if not better chance at success.

Another thing to take note of is the fact that studies have shown that while graduates of humanities subjects have a lower starting pay, they tend to earn more money by mid-career. For example, in the United States, students who took law both as an undergraduate and graduate earned an average of $94,000 a year.

However, students who initially studied humanities subjects before taking up a law degree earned much more. (Philosophy / religious majors – $110,000 per year, area studies majors – $124,000 per year, history majors – $143,000 per year, foreign languages majors – $148,000 per year). This phenomenon is also found in other professions.


I am not saying that humanities students are better than STEM students. Clearly, STEM graduates are important. However, do not turn away from humanities just because you believe that STEM graduates earn more. Humanities graduates have important skills to offer to their employers. Hence, if you are interested in the Humanities, the go-ahead to take them.


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