Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Difference Humanities Makes in Business


What do you do with a BA in English?
What is my life going to be? 
Four years of college and plenty of knowledge
Have earned me this useless degree.
 --Avenue Q (Broadway Show)

The above verse from the Broadway show, Avenue Q, sums up how so many feel today about a degree earned from majoring in the humanities, specifically English majors.  This attitude has lingered but it was personified in this hit show, which picked up steam in the heat of the financial crisis.  The show’s takeaway:  Be practical!
This thinking is further evidenced in a recent article by Verlyn Klinkenborg in The New York Times.  The author of “The Decline and Fall of the English Major” cites some depressing statistics from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences:  at Pomona College, only 16 students graduated with an English major out of a student body of 1560, a fractional number. In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English Literature; by 2012 that number was 62.
Of course, I find these numbers shocking only because I believe so strongly in how the humanities shape us as individuals, who cannot only write and think clearly but can carry on a conversation with the world around us.
For those who choose public relations/communications as a profession, focusing on the humanities, as I did during undergraduate years, provides other advantages.  Our business is all about being a quick study of a client’s business and the environment in which the client exists.  The ability to capture the essence of that information quickly, assess its strategic value and communicate the story with the right messages are skills developed in humanities courses.
We, at our firm, often debate the value of humanities majors vs. public relations majors.  As I see it, the study of humanities builds the foundation that supports an array of sophisticated public relations skill sets.
Nevertheless, as the Times article points out, “Parents have always worried when their children became English majors.  What is an English major good for?”  In other words, will it lead directly to a job?  The article offers this answer:  “Wait and see – an answer that satisfies no one.  And yet it is a real answer, one that reflects the versatility of thought and language that comes from studying literature.” 
The editor asserts that former English majors turn up almost anywhere.  In my opinion, many have the edge in public relations over the more practical PR major. Need everything we do in life pay off immediately?  Perhaps “it takes some living” to find out that the gift of the humanities is “clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature,” giving us the “word consciousness” that makes copy sing.
A deeper issue is that thought leaders in the humanities have done a poor job of marketing the value that humanities bring.  And right now, there has never been a greater opportunity.
As a friend notes, “since content and content development are the bloodline of the commercialization for nearly all businesses because of the internet, writers are critically important.  Positioning humanities as a ticket to work for online publications of the 21st century could change this perception of students that studying the humanities is not a viable choice.”
Writing well is a fundamental principle of the communications business, deeply appreciated by clients and all others we work with.  Our business is just one of many examples where training in the humanities stands strong.  Whether you are an engineer, mathematician, actor or senior executive, everyone who possesses the “grace and energy” that the humanities develops in us, can only be secure in appreciating the rich heritage they have been given.
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