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The Humanities of the Future

You can do more with a humanities degree than waiting tables at a local café. What does that reality actually look like?

Are students’ humanities classes really preparing them for the real world? According to Paula Krebs, director of the Modern Language Association (MLA), college humanities courses teach students invaluable critical thinking skills, but they aren’t going far enough to teach practical applications that help in careers after graduation. At her general lecture for the Humanities Center on February 2, Krebs presented “The Humanities at Work,” providing her insights into how BYU humanities faculty can better prepare students for an ever-evolving 21st-century world.


A staunch defender of the humanities, Krebs reassured attendees that humanities majors are practical and successful in the real world—and brought the statistics to prove it. According to past studies, English and language majors are more likely to find a full-time job than the social and physical sciences. However, she also emphasized that there needs to be a stronger focus on practicality.

Krebs cited resources showing that humanities graduates are pursuing careers outside “typical” humanities jobs like academia, museums, or historical societies and moving toward more business- and engineering-centered careers. Humanities majors, Krebs argued, have what the STEM and business majors don’t have: the ability to think critically, synthesize information, conduct arguments, understand ambiguity, create multimedia presentations, find credible sources, and research. Technical skills are often able to be learned on the job, but thinking deeply is less easily taught.

She recounted an experience she had as a dean at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, where she and some colleagues took a trip to Cisco Systems, a cybersecurity organization. After talking to an HR employee about the qualifications for system engineers at Cisco, she learned that the ideal candidates for the job weren’t those with engineering degrees but those who identify problems and approach solutions in different ways. The rest of the skills, the HR employee assured her, could be learned on the job. To Krebs’ surprise, the employee also said that many of his employees weren’t engineering majors—they were English majors.

This experience helped Krebs to be more aware of how she and other faculty could help humanities students develop useful skills, values, and attributes for the workforce. “If we don’t fully invest in undergraduate humanities education, we’re going to have a culture that does not value what the humanities teach,” Krebs said. The humanities are crucial to understanding human nature but need to be adapted for a modern public and workforce.

The humanities are a valuable asset to today’s emerging fields and should be encouraged. “Our job is not to give them the doom and gloom scenario. . . . There are lots of messages about why you need to be a STEM major or a business major to every [humanities] student,” Krebs said. “They get that message all the time. We need to tell them that there is a wealth of possibility out there for them.” So how do faculty better prepare students for the real world using the humanities?

Here are a few of Krebs’ tips for faculty to help students:

  1. Normalize student uncertainty. 
  1. Encourage them to explore, both before and after graduation. 
  1. Talk to humanities agencies, community groups, and area employers. 
  1. Encourage students to ask questions when they meet new people. 

Luckily, College of Humanities faculty recognize this need and have recently pushed for changes to make humanities majors prepared for life after graduation. Professors offer more resources than ever for students to participate in experiential learning, including mentored research, study abroad opportunities, and internships. Additionally, majors within the College (like English and linguistics) have created multiple tracks to help students train for their professional ambitions.

“We love our students, and we want them to thrive. We want to show them the full extent and value of what they’re learning in our classes,” Krebs said. “We can put together what they’re learning in our classes with what they're learning in other contexts to help them make cases for themselves.” Even though the traditional approach to teaching and learning may be evolving, humanities majors pioneer the jobs of the future.