This article is more than 5 years old

Humanities as vocation

The narrative that the humanities are "irrelevant luxuries" is pernicious and harmful. Jon Wilson of King's College London makes the case the vocational and cultural value of such study.
This article is more than 5 years old

Jon Wilson is Vice-Dean (Education) in Arts and Humanities at King’s College London.

The government’s post-18 review has sparked yet another debate about the value of arts and humanities degrees.

One proposal is that these supposedly less useful and cheaper subjects should cost less. The idea won’t survive the illogicality of lowering the price of something the government wants to discourage. But, it draws on the long-standing devaluation of the humanities in public discourse.

Too often, our political leaders speak of subjects like history, philosophy, and modern languages as irrelevant luxuries, nice to have but certainly not worth public support when put against the hard case for medicine and engineering. Also too often, universities are reticent to acknowledge the vocational character of humanities disciplines, so end up corroborating this glib political analysis. We in higher education – as much as those in politics – need to get real about the value of humanities degrees.

Work-related learning

The humanities are vocational. They are vocational in a way that isn’t so very different from traditional vocational subjects. It’s only the tech-fetishism of our public culture (sustained most of all by self-hating humanities graduates in government and the media) which stops us from seeing their real value.

Humanities and seemingly more vocational disciplines like engineering or computing each offer mastery of particular areas of life in our complex world. All teach students to engage with the real world, imparting knowledge and skills of practical use. None, not even the most ostensibly practical, exactly maps onto any single career. The only difference is that the job title of “vocational” subjects is more likely to be reflected in the title of the degree.

So for example, engineering teaches how to analyse and design machines and machine-like systems; medicine, the working of the human body with the aim of preventing and curing disease. But there’s a lot to being an engineer or doctor which isn’t part of the discipline as traditionally conceived. Pitching projects, managing colleagues, and negotiating the NHS’s bureaucracy are important too. Increasingly “vocational” subjects draw on other parts of the university to give students are more rounded educational experience.

Lifelong learning

There’s no essential difference with the humanities. Philosophy teaches its students to analyse people as thinking beings, offering a variety of methods for challenging and improving the rationality of what we think; the ability to reason critically from first principles at such an advanced level is important in a range of careers, the law for example. History teaches us to construct truthful stories about the contexts of human action, explaining how institutions and societies change; financial analysis, policy research, and journalism all require their practitioners to research and write historical narratives which draw from a complex range of sources. English and modern languages analyse how we construct systems of meaning, not so different from the way work is done in media and cultural industries – and so on.

Humanities disciplines are vocational in a broad sense, giving humanities students a particular way of seeing the world that stays with them for life. History graduates carry on reading history books. My university administrator colleague has a distinctly philosophical approach, even though it’s a long while since she finished a philosophy degree. Given the chance, former undergraduates relish opportunities to return to their university to keep track of the field they studied.


But the practical, real-world, value of the humanities is also reflected in the demand for the skills they offer from employers, in students’ post-university career trajectories, and their pay packets. Medics and economists are top of the earnings table; but the average graduate in maths, computer science, or engineering doesn’t earn substantially more than a historian or philosopher. A computer scientist graduating in 2008/9 earned a median of £27,500 five years later, compared to £25,000 for a historian, philosopher or linguist. That’s only the case because humanities knowledge and the skills it develops are seen as a productive asset by employers.

The point I want to emphasise is that there is far more of practical use to humanities subjects than generic “transferrable” or “soft” skills. Of course, university degrees teach time management, information processing, and succinct writing. But, the specific knowledge and intellectual practices which each discipline offers has practical use too. Employers recognise that; it’s time politicians and university leaders did as well.

Knowing your history

Of course this is how the humanities began. As university subjects, the humanities were initially intended as practical disciplines. From the Renaissance, the study of ancient societies was encouraged to give elite men models for living. Knowledge of ancient rhetoric was meant to assist public speaking. History, when it became a university discipline in the mid nineteenth-century, offered lessons in exercising power for contemporary statesmen.

The humanities were founded to support forms of leadership inappropriate to our democratic, multicultural society. But, the best humanities teaching now emphasises practical connection with the world beyond the university, updated for today.


But, as many humanities scholars are doing, we should also build our subjects’ practical connection with the real world into our teaching. Only by making that direct particular link to life and work after university can humanities subjects stem the current decline in applications.

Those links are being made in different ways in universities now. They might involve creating communities of practice, where alumni in related fields discuss and help shape the curriculum and career choices of current students. We can place students with firms and institutions where they learn to put their knowledge to practical use. Sometimes, we also need to change what we teach to better connect with the world we live in now.

At King’s College London, we’re hoping to develop new courses which enrich traditional disciplines with the techniques of digital analysis needed to engage with a world of mass, online, social media. Sometimes though, it’s simply being more explicit and telling a clear story about the practical use of what we do.

Humanities academics should stop cringing when conversation turns to the purpose of the our disciplines – we have as good a story to tell about the practical use of our disciplines as anyone else.

6 responses to “Humanities as vocation

  1. I agree, humanities are vocational, if a graduate knows how to present the skills gained from the course. I’m a 2016 English & International Relations graduate. I think you are right, humanities degrees do change the way you see the world. International Relations gave me a whole different perspective, which has stayed with me and I can’t stop talking about it.

    In terms of graduate earnings, I’m probably up there with one of the highest earnings of my class, including friends that did ‘vocational’ degrees such as computing, marketing and engineering. I have seen some humanities students struggle to gain employment after graduating, but personally, I do believe this is less about the course they have studied and more about the person and their approach to employment. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do when I graduated, to be honest, I didn’t even know you could work in Student Recruitment. We do need more career support for graduates, some institutions are fantastic at offering placements and so on, but others are not. It’s more a case that some universities are offering more to their students than others in the way of support and career guidance.There is no ‘career path’ planned out as clearly for humanities graduates as there might be with engineers, forensic scientists and so on. I was fortunate as my family work in recruitment and HR, so I had a few tricks up my sleeve when it came to looking for graduate jobs. Lots of students don’t have these additional resources, and have struggled because of this, opting to go on to do ‘vocational’ PG study as they feel like this may give them an edge over other graduates.

    I do however struggle with the notion that my degree was worth £9,000 a year compared to sciences which had quadruple the teaching time as my course, and had various pieces of equipment used throughout the course for experiments etc. Particularly in my final year where I had only 2 hours of teaching a week (of course I’m a little bitter as I went to university the first year of £9k fees). But, in the interest of fairness, I do understand why we do all pay the same. I do believe that the minute we start to charge less for humanities, potential STEM students might be put off because of the ‘debt’ scenario, and opt for other options.

  2. I think your points are well made. I would extend some of the ideas too. For instance, humanities should be shaping the conversation about their purpose and value, not just retaliating to arguments about what jobs students go on to and how much they earn. There’s an opportunity to do something different and change the conversation.

    I also think it’s important to say that academics and professional staff in humanities are not alone. Graduates of these subjects will not, I believe, have chosen them solely on what they’ll earn. My sense is that people choose these subjects because of a fascination for them. Anyone who has studied the humanities will weigh their value against their own expectations. So managing expectations, and shaping this conversation, is critical.

  3. Spot on: a good antidote to reductive thinking about employability.

    One report I looked at recently (from Pearson) forecasts that changes including AI/automation will mean “human” skills such as originality, fluency of ideas and active listening will be more in demand than ever in the next 20 years, particularly when combined with technical skills (a data analyst who can then develop creative proposals on the back of their analysis and communicate it effectively to others, for example). A good argument for more combined honours humanities/sciences offerings?

  4. I agree entirely. My humanities background has definitely been a benefit in gaining employment and the approach it has taught me to adopt has been incredibly useful in my career. These subjects are of use to the employment market and society, but we, as universities, aren’t often very good at explaining to those nearing graduation what they actually get from having studied these degrees. Students are too close tot he subject at that point to realise what they have gained from studying it.

  5. Hear, hear. I suggest that politics in its broadest sense is the applied discipline of the humanities (see my book on Practical Politics: lessons in democracy and power. We should teach practical politics as part of humanities.

  6. Your use of the word ‘enrich’ is enough to raise my hackles, just like Peter Jones answering the question ‘How is Latin useful?’ with the question ‘What could be more useful than pleasure?’


    If humanities degrees were vocational, there would be graduate job vacancies with ‘humanities’ under ‘discipline required’.

    If humanities degrees were vocational, there would be employers offering training contracts for those who had done them.

    If humanities degrees were vocational, those who did them would not be sneered at by those doing accounting for doing ‘useless subjects’ or ‘soft options’.

    If humanities degrees were vocational, people who got jobs related to them would have done so because of them, not through being members of Oxbridge societies

    If humanities degrees were vocational, people from Asia, Africa and the Americas would be insisting that their children do them in the UK to advance their careers.

    If humanities degrees were vocational, the University of Buckingham would regard them as a cash cow, not cross-subsidised by law and business.

    Yes, that’s where I did my humanities degree in the mid-1990s, having been stung for overseas tuition fees, and I can say that I saw the future and confirm that it didn’t work.

    Two-year degree courses, at least for the humanities, were, and are, the worst of both worlds, half the flavour, all the fat.

    I learnt the hard way that when it comes to humanities degrees, it’s not the degree itself that’s important, it’s where you do it.

Leave a Reply