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My gloriously useless degrees in the humanities

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In a similar trend, the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States, has seen its annual budget shrink from $167.5 million in 2010 to $146 million this year. Academics are worried that budgetary shortfalls will push the humanities to backslide a century, when only a privileged few had access to them. 

The hard truth is no degree guarantees a clear-cut, secure professional trajectory anymore. 

Take a look at Europe’s most economically troubled countries. In Spain, for example, the job market hardly kept up with the rising education rates and half of its young people are unemployed. In America, half of the unemployed aged 25 and younger have some form of college education. Almost 40 percent of graduates who are employed are working in jobs that do not require a college degree.

“Security” today, as a former colleague of mine said, is skills, not a permanent contract. When I think about the work I did at the UN, knowledge of phenomenology or regression analysis was absolutely useless. But the ability to sum up hundreds of pages of technical and bureaucratic language in a crisp memo or a snappy presentation was – is – a great asset.

A foreign language works like a passport. Critical thinking helps put complex situations into perspective. Emotional acuity serves as a compass when navigating office politics. And these are skills that training in the humanities can enhance.

Commentators have already pointed out that unemployment among recent college graduates is not due to mismatch of skills, but rather to a lack of demand in the feeble economy. In the absence of growth to create jobs, young people with or without a college degree will continue to bear the brunt of the consequences.   

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