What is a Humanities Degree?

The humanities examine the mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the human condition and experience. Coursework in the field spans many subject areas, from psychology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and religion to language, communication, history, arts, and ethics. The goal is to learn how to learn and how to continue learning about humanity and the development of culture and society, past, present, and future.

One way of distinguishing a humanities curriculum from many other scholastic paths is that its focus is not on providing occupational or professional skills, but on nurturing general knowledge, intellectual skills, and emotional intelligence.

The words of American businessman, investor, and philanthropist Stephen Schwarzman eloquently capture the unique and important place that the humanities occupy in education: ‘… the study of the Humanities has been core to western civilization and scholarship, we need to ensure that its insights and principles can be adapted to today’s dynamic world.’

Program Options

Associate Degree in Humanities – Two Year Duration
Bachelor’s Degree in Humanities – Four Year Duration
At the associate and bachelor’s levels, many schools do not offer a specific humanities degree. Instead, their humanities undergraduate programs may require that students complete either a double major or a major/minor in disciplines that are part of their Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. This kind of degree structure naturally provides students with a wide array of major and minor choices.

Here are some of the majors and minors from which students can generally choose:

  • Anthropology
  • Archaeology
  • Classics
  • Economics
  • English
  • French
  • Gender Studies
  • Geography
  • German
  • History
  • Law
  • Law Enforcement
  • Linguistics
  • Mass Communication and Media Studies
  • Medieval Studies
  • Philosophy
  • Political Science
  • Religious Studies
  • Russian
  • Sociology
  • Spanish

Some schools also allow humanities students to minor in:

  • Business Administration
  • Computer Science
  • International Business
  • Music
  • Psychology
  • Mathematics
  • Statistics
  • Faculty of Science Subject Areas

Master’s Degree in Humanities – Two Year Duration
Depending on their specific program, master’s candidates may continue their studies with advanced courses in the subjects listed above in the bachelor’s degree section. However, at many schools, it is at the master’s level that humanities students begin to delve into major themes and orientations of the humanities discipline as a whole. In this case, the focal point of required courses is the examination and discussion of questions like the following:

  • What is language?
  • How is speech related to writing?
  • What can we know of history?
  • How are past, present, and future related?
  • Is all expression self-expression?
  • Is expression a construction of what ought to be?
  • What is interpretation?
  • What is a human self?
  • What is biopolitics (defined as ‘a political rationality which takes the administration of life and populations as its subject: to ensure, sustain, and multiply life, to put this life in order)?
  • What are media?
  • What is education?

These questions may be addressed through master’s courses such as:

  • Speaking and Writing – introduction to manifestations of language: spoken, written, played, sung, painted, photographed, filmed, etc.
  • Readings in History (Interpretation) – introduction to the study of history, the importance of history for social and political events through readings in a historical period such as ancient Greece; the French, American, Russian revolutions
  • Readings in Western Literature (Autobiography) – study of types of autobiography in literature, painting, film; discussion of how autobiography, expression, and language are linked
  • Readings in Philosophy (Interpretation) – discussion of the art and practice of interpretation in theory, fiction, poetry, painting, and film
  • Readings in Science and Technology – examination of one area of science and/or technology (e.g., biology, genetics, electronic media) from historical, sociological, and philosophical perspectives

After completing courses like those described above, students focus on their Humanities Seminar, the main project of their Master’s Degree in Humanities. While this may be a traditional thesis, some humanities programs give students greater flexibility and allow their thesis or project to take a more individualistic form. Examples may be an expressive journal of ideas, discussions, and reflections or a series of creative written and illustrated pieces developed throughout their master’s studies.

Doctoral Degree in Humanities – Five to Seven Year Duration
The doctoral program in humanities provides students with an interdisciplinary environment that encourages them to think creatively, investigate and reflect on the past, and imagine the future.

Here are some sample doctoral level courses:

  • Trauma, Subjectivity, and Culture – the relationships among trauma, subjectivity, art, and culture
  • Principles of Interactive Media – theory of participatory media like video games, social networking sites, and interactive texts
  • Political Theory – comparison of opposing approaches to the interpretation of issues in political theory
  • Interdisciplinary Research and Writing in the Humanities – research techniques and resources
  • Current Questions about Education, Democracy, and the Public Good – the relationship between democracy and education; discussion of populism, radicalism, political apathy, individualization, academic freedom, and indoctrination
  • Research Seminar – development of thesis research topics and methodologies

Degrees Similar to Humanities

American Studies
As the name implies, students who major in American Studies study the United States, its history, literature, politics, economy, people, and popular culture. Increasingly, programs in this field incorporate examination of the wider Americas and the Caribbean.

Classical Studies
The study of the languages, literatures, philosophy, history, archaeology, and civilization of ancient Greece and Rome is the focus of a degree in the classics.

In English degree programs, students read, study, and write about the literature and culture of the English-speaking world. Coursework also includes the history, linguistic structure, and use of the English language.

Entrepreneurship students learn how to build, promote, and manage their own or others’ businesses. Common classes are entrepreneurial finance, foundations of entrepreneurship, investor relations and funding, new product design and development, and business plans.

Environmental Studies
Students of environmental studies are exposed to the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. They apply knowledge from each of these areas to examine how resources can be sustained in the face of increasing populations, various forms of pollution, and the endangerment of species and natural systems.

Journalism degree programs teach students how to report, write, and edit articles for broadcast or publication. They include classes in broadcast news writing, copyediting and design, reporting, and media law and ethics.

Liberal Arts
An education in liberal arts is broad and diverse. Therefore, students who pursue a degree in the field can choose courses from several subject areas. Programs encompass coursework in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and mathematics. This degree equips students with a well-rounded, foundational education that can be applied in almost any occupation.

Library Science
Library science degree programs teach the skills needed to work as librarians and information specialists. Students who study the field learn how to conduct research, use library database software, and manage and preserve collections of books, journals, documents, photographs, films, sound recordings, and other information resources.

Museum Studies
Students who complete a ‘museology’ or museum studies degree program acquire the skills needed to conserve, preserve, organize, and exhibit artwork, artifacts, and other objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest. They learn about the four basic types of museums – art, history, science, and nature – and how to manage their collections.

Philosophy encourages the asking of big questions and the formulation of arguments to attempt to answer them. Who are we? Why are we here? What do we believe? Why do we believe it? What is right and wrong in life? What is true and false? What is real and unreal? Philosophy is concerned with the nature of existence and knowledge.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn.

Religious Studies
The focus of religious studies degree programs is the nature and origin of religious belief and traditions. Coursework includes the study of specific religions such as Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Catholicism, as well as religious history, politics, and anthropology.

Speech Communication and Rhetoric
Degree programs in speech communication and rhetoric focus on the study of human communication. Students of the discipline examine how we communicate one on one, within organizations, and in the larger contexts of politics, cultures, and societies. Coursework includes public speaking, speech writing, and analysis and criticism of examples of persuasive speaking or writing.

Skills You’ll Learn

Because the humanities encompass a wide spectrum of study, earning a degree in the field leaves graduates with significant skills that most, if not all, employers would value:

  • Analytical, critical, and creative thinking skills
  • Effective oral and written communication skills
  • Problem-solving and pattern recognition skills
  • Ability to learn and apply new ideas
  • Data analysis
  • Reading skills
  • Math / numerical skills
  • Research skills
  • Organization and time-management skills
  • Information literacy skills
  • Ability to adapt to different situations
  • Ethical decision-making skills
  • Ability to ask meaningful questions
  • Ability to work in a team
  • Self-confidence and self-awareness
  • Sensitivity to others and to cultural differences
  • Foreign language and cross-cultural skills

What Can You Do with a Humanities Degree?

A list of all of the occupational categories that may be open to humanities graduates would be extremely long. Why? Because the coursework in humanities programs is not career-specific. This is not to say that entering some of the career fields listed below may not require additional education beyond a humanities degree. What is true, however, is that the degree lays a respected foundation for these and many other sectors:

Photography, commercial art, painting, graphic design, interior design, fashion design, visual design, film, music

A humanities graduate has a breadth of knowledge to teach a wide range of subjects to a wide range of students.

Translation / Interpretation
Many humanities students learn at least one foreign language. This skill is the starting point for a career in translation and interpretation.

Tourism / Travel / Hospitality
Foreign language and world history knowledge are major components of many tourism, travel, and hospitality jobs.

Business / Marketing / Advertising / Human Resources / Communications / Public Relations / Journalism-Media-Publishing / News Editing / Copywriting
Each of these sectors calls for skills and talents in the humanities, in understanding and communicating with people.

Political Science
Careers in this field span the categories of government, law, politics, public policy, lobbying, and philanthropy/NGOs.

And many more…
Healthcare, Social Services, Research, Retail Management, Event Planning, Banking, International Relations, Entrepreneurship


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