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How to Talk to Your Parents About Majoring in the Humanities


Choosing to major in any of the humanities disciplines brings with it many intellectual challenges and rewards. You learn a new body of knowledge, how to think, read, and write about it critically, and how to engage in disputes over its issues in productive ways. You also take on the challenge of justifying your major to your parents.

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Your parents want the best for you, but their idea of the best may not include majoring in a subject that does not offer an easily defined entry to a career. You parents are also, probably, nervous, because they are most likely well acquainted with the stomach-clenching that comes with making very large purchases. The difference is that, unlike a house or a car, a college education does not come with a tangible object in exchange for the money. And while they are thinking about how long it will take you to pay off student loans, they are reading and hearing about unemployed college graduates, and hearing about the neighbor’s kid’s computer-science major and her seven job offers, and they are freaking out a little.

Do You Know What You're Worth?

So how do you talk to them about your plans to pursue a humanities major?

Before you ever open your mouth about this, accept that even if they can understand and respect your decision in a rational way, they can still be nervous about your job prospects. They will be concerned about your future for their entire lives, and they will express some concern for most of their lives. That’s normal.

What’s less normal than it should be is asking them what they are nervous about. The way to phrase it is not “what’s the matter with you, anyway?” but “what about my majoring in history makes you nervous?” If you ask them the specific question in a blame-free tone, they may well be astonished and flattered, and if you are patient enough with each other to work through to a factual answer — “I’m worried you’ll never get a job, and you’ll never be able to pay off these loans” or whatever it is — you’ll be able to engage with specific issues, not the shapeless anxiety that wakes them up at 2 a.m. Just voicing the worry often helps both parties a great deal.

The single most common worry is that a humanities major doesn’t lead to a defined path to a job. That’s most often true, and acknowledging reality is important for your credibility. As an employer who has hired many entry-level employees, I can tell you that I never made a job offer to a major; I hired people with skills who were suitable to the job and team I was hiring for. Some of those people majored in specific subject areas that contributed to their job, and some did not. But there are also many people who majored in specific subject areas whom I did not hire, not because they did not have the right major but because they were not right for the job.

You will be able to make your case to your parents if you make it in the context of your education as a whole, and explain to them what you are doing, which is gaining subject-matter knowledge, learning people skills, and working on projects. Your major gives you subject-matter knowledge: it helps you contextualize U.S. and world events, or explain customer motivations, or write clear instructions for new users of a product, or show what makes people of different backgrounds work well in the same group. Your people-skills come from the people who meet in class, in your living spaces, and in your social activities, and one key aspect of higher education is introducing to a lot of new people in unfamiliar places. This is exactly — exactly — what happens to you in new workplaces.

Finally, you are learning what all employers value, which how to take on a project, work with the people who care about it, and finish it, whether that is a joint academic project, a social event, your part-time job while you attend college, or the schedule for maintaining your living space. College is about doing all of that at once in a new, more intense, bigger environment that you are used to, which is why I have hired former college students of all majors for years.

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