On the Value of the Humanities

Jonah Foong
7 min readApr 16, 2019


I had a conversation with a friend recently, who, as a political science student, was frustrated at the privileging of STEM fields over the rest.

An intractable proposition had been nestled in his head for a while, and in subsequent months I discovered that it had in mine too: How do we express the value of the humanities to its naysayers?

As a student of International Relations this was something that frustrated me to no end, particularly as I prepare to enter the working world with nothing but a knack for writing essays and “critical thinking” to show for it. Peers around me from finance, banking, economics, and STEM fields had no trouble landing the very jobs their study had prepared them for. Funnily enough, they were also landing the very jobs I thought my major had prepared me for. It felt like I was sailing in the open seas, using a rod to fish for tuna while everyone around me had wide nets to cast.

To my mind, being able to express empirically, and even place an elegant figure on the value of the humanities would grant staunch advocates like myself much needed teeth in our battle against detractors. And yet the numbers often reflect us in poor light. Recent graduate employment surveys point to the high earning power of STEM graduates, and in our numbers obsessed generation the mind-numbing precision of mathematical calculations are accorded greater legitimacy.

A couple weeks ago, the BBC published an article on this very issue titled “Why ‘worthless’ humanities degrees may set you up for life”. The author, a history graduate, argued that humanities degrees equip students with the soft skills and critical thinking that are necessary for managerial positions, firmly backed up by numbers and statistics. She also added that vocational degrees can be risky because students may develop a different interest later on, and thus a humanities education provides more flexibility. What followed next were impressive statistics on the high earning power of liberal arts students later in life.

In all, the article was well written and compellingly argued. It did not resolve the question by any means, but it provided students like myself a ready defence I could spring from my lips. Anyone who questioned my choice of study would now be met with a deluge of statistics ranging from LinkedIn’s “three most sought after job skills” to Glassdoor’s study on “the top 10 jobs in the UK”. Needless to say, I promptly shared the article on my Facebook as well.

To be sure, this isn’t the first attempt of its kind at defending the humanities. The subject has been addressed by publications like the Washington Post and The Guardian, and even books have been written on this. Politicians have weighed in on this too; it was only a few months ago that PM Lee himself highlighted that a society without an appreciation for the arts and culture would be a “soulless” one. And yet, humanities students the world over are not getting any reprieve from questions about career aspirations and something-something about school teachers. You get the drift.

I found myself wondering why this was the case, for it seemed like the only people who paid attention to these debates were humanities students themselves. Truth is, many of us take refuge in such passionate attempts at defending our choice of discipline, because it at least provides some justification for the thousands of dollars we spend on a degree that society deems “worthless”. Perhaps it is why I find myself writing this too, on the brink of graduation and without a job. There is solace I take in constantly repeating the same arguments to my friends and myself, just enough to drown out my own creeping doubts.

But there is little point in tirelessly rehearsing the same arguments within our tribes; one does not win followers preaching to the converted. Advocates of the humanities have done a good job convincing themselves of the value in their work, but they have done little to persuade others across the aisle. Relative to the other disciplines, non vocational degrees like the humanities are still, by some accounts, a waste of time. At every open day at my school I always encounter a handful of prospective students who tell me wistfully of their interest in the social sciences, but who will be pursuing either business or STEM degrees at their parents’ insistence. The fact is that no one writes articles about the “worthlessness” of STEM degrees, because the value of a STEM degree is so firmly established in our minds that its worth is beyond scrutiny. The most popular kids in class are never the ones who tell everyone of their popularity; they just are. The ones who do often come across as rather annoying, conceited, and not very well liked.

More than it being a futile effort, such arguments, though well meaning, perpetuate a reductionist, binary form of thinking. Take the Washington Post article for instance, which highlighted the “problem-solving”, “critical thinking” skills that liberal arts majors bring to their jobs. Students who dabble in the humanities must be more creative and well read, while STEM people are good with numbers. And on the side you have the business and finance people who are good at making money. It’s a lazy way to think about people that reduces them to their academic discipline and its accompanying stereotype. It’s also the very same mode of thinking that led to these unhealthy questions in the first place. It assumes that there is and should be some kind of neat division of labour in society, where there is no need for mechanical engineers to pick up Kipling and Keats because “that’s only for people doing English Literature”.

Perhaps then, “what is the value of the humanities?” is just a poor question to begin with.

Today, no one really doubts the necessity of the humanities, but it’s no stretch to suggest that it’s becoming less appreciated. And yet, constantly posing questions about its value only comes across as a desperate attempt at conveying relevance while promoting a myopic fixation on individual disciplines. It blinds us from appreciating the larger ecosytem within which these disciplines are housed, and how they cross fertilise and interact with one another. It is not only English literature students that should be allowed to appreciate drama or poetry, any more than the physics student be allowed to appreciate science and images of black holes. Obsessing about the value of individual disciplines creates a siloing effect and reinforces the idea of a humanities for humanities students, or a STEM for STEM students.

In addition, it encourages us to do humanities for humanities’ sake. We panic at the dying of the arts, culture, and humanities, and so we agitate for the need to preserve it, and that becomes all that we do: just preserving. We attempt — in an effort to locate a Singaporean identity — to revive Chinese dialects by bringing it back to our TV screens, decades after prohibiting its use on local media. We promote art festivals, organise museum exhibits and yearly Chingay Parades, hire humanities graduates into the civil service, take solace in the words of politicians and reputable newspaper columns, and then congratulate ourselves on a job well done.

In effect, we have locked the humanities into a figurative enclosure, one that we exhibit for our viewing pleasure from time to time, all while ignoring the integral role it plays beyond its captive state. It is like placing rhinos in the zoo, which, while saving them from certain extinction, provides absolutely zero value to its ecosystem. Each animal plays a distinct and important role, and in the case of the rhino, it is both fodder for predators and a disperser of plant seeds. But for all the splendour of the rhino, not one biologist will be able to bestow a number on the value of that magnificent beast in relation to the larger ecosystem in which it exists.

It is the same thing with the humanities. The answer to “what is the value of the humanities” is that it doesn’t matter. Indeed, asking such questions tempts us into creating a hierarchy of values, where you can be sure that some will be deemed more useful than others. To say that society might be “soulless” without the arts and culture is to imply its role as mere icing on the cake; dessert wouldn’t taste as nice without it but you’d still have something to eat. On the other hand, to do away with the STEM, the business, or the finance fields would be to render us devoid of any cake at all. And yet, in an ecosystem the lion is not more important than the rhino, is not more important than the unspectacular mealworm, is not more important than the unsightly fungus. We ought not to lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Jobs are evolving, and so should the way we see our academic disciplines. Today, scientists on the frontiers of genetic editing and AI have to grapple with philosophical concepts like ethics and morality. The silos don’t exist anymore. The recent uproar surrounding Chinese scientist He Jiankui’s use of CRISPR editing to modify viable embryos is case in point. Scientific precision alone cannot tell us where our moral sensibilities should lie. Modern day philosophers like Nick Bostrom and Massimo Pigliucci have moved beyond the usual humdrum of philosophy to more immediately relevant concepts like AI, human enhancement, and biology. These are encouraging to see, but more cross pollination is needed.

I find my mind wandering back to the BBC article I shared on Facebook, which, sandwiched between the usual meme posts, was received with little fanfare. While it says more about my lack of online presence than it does the reading tastes of my peers, I cannot help but wonder if my hunch was right. Perhaps the vast majority don’t really care about these trivial debates. Perhaps they’ve grown weary of students like myself crying foul from ivory towers, blind to the harsh realities of the real world. Or perhaps it’s us who have it all wrong, and like the old couple who stay too long in an unhappy marriage, look for quarrel where none exist.

For what it’s worth, it is unlikely that much will change in the near term. We will continue to ask philosophy and history students if they aspire to become teachers. Job hunts for humanities students will be largely conducted on the Careers@Gov portal. And as for me, I will resign myself to penning cover letters highlighting my “communication” and “critical thinking” skills, all while resting an imaginary chip on my shoulder.