National Campaign Demystifies the Humanities

Humanities5 MIN READ

Debunking myths about humanities degrees, Aaron Hanlon rethinks how we approach education

By Isabella Marin ’23Photography by Gabe Souza
December 6, 2021

Now what?

The dreaded question many recent college graduates must face. 

However, this question is usually followed by another for humanities majors.

What are you going to do with that?

Watching many of his own students stress over answering this question, Associate Professor of English Aaron Hanlon aspires to debunk the myths latching onto the humanities disciplines. 

Through both his independent research and his recent collaboration with the campaign Humanities Works, Hanlon is bringing hope back into the humanities. Working against the notion of a daunting fate of decreased prospects following humanities degree-holders, Hanlon works to fight misconceptions littering the field. 

Afterall, what if students knew that upon graduation, English majors and foreign language majors have a lower chance of being underemployed than recent biology, psychology, and business majors? Or what if their parents knew that literature, history, and philosophy majors are among the top scorers on the GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, and GRE exams necessary for many graduate school programs? Would the future with a humanities degree still look so bleak? 

“I’m basically critiquing both the concept of the humanities and the concept of STEM for their inability to signal good things or accurate things about job prospects and career prospects for graduates,” Hanlon said.

Humanities Works seeks to demystify job prospects in the humanities through dissecting how this misinformation functions in two directions. Not only do we commonly underestimate the employability, salaries, and job satisfaction of humanities students, we also overestimate these outcomes for degree-holders in STEM disciplines. These myths, Hanlon comments, increase pressure on students who feel choosing to major in humanistic fields immediately results in reduced prospects. 

To dispel these presumptions, the campaign has designed various posters that attack these myths on five fronts: comparable salary, humanistic skills, underemployment, employment, and graduate school. Found at colleges and universities across the country as well as in the UK, these posters have certainly found an audience. Yet, the real question Hanlon asks is: are they changing minds?

Myth vs Reality poster
Myth vs Reality poster
Two of the posters in the national campaign Humanities Works, which aims to help students, parents, employers, and professors understand the value of a degree in the humanities.

The heart of the campaign is directed at changing the minds of students. Students, he comments, ultimately decide the path of their own education and, therefore, must be the primary priority. However, to reduce outside pressure, this campaign is intended to reach parents, employers, politicians, and professors as well. 

Hanlon’s purpose is simple: “All of this is to free people up to make choices.” Hoping to loosen the pressure to find a marketable interest in a high-earning field, the campaign aims to show students that a variety of disciplines offer similar job prospects. While some fields, like petroleum engineering, are clearly big earners comparatively, the underemployment rates and median salaries for many subjects across both the humanities and sciences are not measurably different.  

Looking toward the implications of this work, Hanlon strives to push the conversation even further. He aims to counteract perceptions and paradigms set by institutional structures through encouraging people to pause and reevaluate. His main goal is surpassing the dichotomy of humanities and STEM and, instead, “seeing where there are actually more opportunities for overlap, collaboration, cooperation, mutual support, and solidarity among the various disciplines, rather than thinking about this as we all have to defend our own corner of the world of knowledge.”

With his own nuanced background, Hanlon himself stands as an embodied rejection of the divided education system. As an undergraduate, Hanlon studied political science, biology, and economics. His cross-disciplinary education has now led to his position in the English Department and his recent appointment as director of the Science, Technology, and Society Program at Colby. 

“Even with all the pressures in the world, the pressures from parents, pressures from friends, pressures from politicians, students are ultimately the ones making the decisions about their education. And students are the ones who have the stakes of that.”

Aaron Hanlon, Associate Professor of English

Taking into account these experiences, it is no surprise that Hanlon’s own research focuses on how society frames and organizes knowledge. With his work centering on enlightenment Britain, Hanlon describes how this time and place was a hub for debating institutional frameworks. With its notorious upheavals and transitions within the education system, this history is the perfect framework from which to reignite the debate of how we should organize knowledge. 

With both this framework and his recent work on labor statistics for humanities majors, Hanlon’s research contributes to a new upheaval within the education system. These topics and research questions contradict the current perceptions of humanities disciplines, interrupting the education system. Reflecting on these contradictions, Hanlon remarked, “To me, those aren’t threats. They’re signals. They tell us something about a reorganization of knowledge. … And so it’s a little bit scary, but I think it’s also kind of an opportunity to rethink a lot of things.”

Through providing the resources needed by students, parents, employers, politicians, and professors alike, Hanlon is sparking this rethinking of education. Through this, he’s pursuing more than simply a way to counteract misinformation. He is igniting a whole new way of approaching education.