Many college age young adults have been questioning the value of a college education — citing cost, time, and whether chosen majors will translate into tangible job prospects. Young people are coming of age in a time of rapid technological and sociological changes.
A survey conducted in spring 2022 by New America, a nonpartisan think tank, found that although most surveyed agreed that post-secondary education provides a good return on investment, the overall impact of higher education is declining, challenged by economic pressures, higher prices, and expectations of inflation.
Here’s what career obsolescence looked like when I was a young graphic paste-up artist. Enormous typesetting machines were going the way of other metallic dinosaurs, to be replaced by Macs. Fonts, sizes, and points above and below each line no longer needed to be hand-calculated as instructions given to a person we called the typesetter. Instead, all instructions came automatically programmable on personal computers. The first Pagemaker program took on formatting, rendering my paste-up skills useless.
Business and industry are moving fast. Skills unimaginable today will be required five or ten years from now. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that a third of Americans change jobs yearly; a young person entering the workforce may expect to change careers five to seven times in their working life.
When a traditional degree is too pricey, high school grads can benefit from certifications in career areas that interest them that they can build on. Starting out in the trades or industries offers steps up professional ladders to pivot from. The health care industry is an example of a rapidly growing field. With a basic certificate, a person may start out as a Health Care Aide and move to L.P.N., then into a R.N. position taking courses along the way, finding a specialty in the process. Laterally there are many options in health care; broad exposure may open other paths if nursing is not the best fit: lab work, physical or occupational therapy may offer possibilities after exposure to the field. Farming too has rapidly integrated technology; those who are tech savvy can benefit from certifications and courses in agricultural management, business, or environmental sciences. And manufacturing continues to require increasingly technological skills. Technology and education frequently converge — being agile in pivoting benefits students who can choose a path of training and certifications, a useful education.
So what are the uses of history, of philosophy, of languages and literature? These pursuits are ways of asking questions of purpose and origin. They ask and attempt to answer what it means to be human, to live in a society. The humanities help find a reason to learn, to work and sustain ourselves in careers, families, communities, the very things that matter. If I learn to appreciate human origins, the history of my world, words, and my nation, I learn to appreciate a basis for belonging. I come to know the world’s stories, poems, and narratives, study its founding myths and documents. I learn about other times, civilizations, peoples. I learn that I am not alone. I begin to answer questions of who I am, how the conventions of my world were made, why we say and think the way we do. The humanities create the adaptability to pivot in a changing world.
When I used to teach, there was not a single student in class who did not wonder what would become of them. I hoped that by teaching writing and literature, I could lead them to articulate their big questions, visions of what they might do and become. In practical ways I taught the technical – how to write analytically for college. But the best part of teaching is leading people to think, to consider outcomes, to question, to imagine.
We are headed to the moon again, then to Mars. A quest like exploring space takes imagination, invention, mathematical literacy, precise communication skills, and spatial acuity. Exploration is cultivated with intangibles like historical and cultural perspective, problem-solving, ethical choice, finding pathways for reason and just action, questions that study of the humanities fosters and supports. These are places where all exploration, the practical and theoretical converge, not “useless” knowledge at all.
S. E. Gilman, who lives in Monroe Township, has worked in social services, publishing, at booksellers, in kitchens, and academia.
She has taught writing and literacy education and tutoring in universities, community settings, at a correctional institution, and on Native reservations.