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What Are the Humanities?

By the OnlineU team | Updated 9/11/2023

Studying liberal arts and the humanities helps us understand ourselves and others, which can be vital in our highly interconnected world. This study gives us a greater context of the human experience in culture and society and helps us make sense of our world. Learning the humanities can help deepen our appreciation for the human condition and how we may all be more similar than different. As a result, we may develop more empathy and compassion for each other as we develop our critical thinking skills, which we can carry into our personal and professional lives.

By the OnlineU team | Updated 9/11/2023

Studying liberal arts and the humanities helps us understand ourselves and others, which can be vital in our highly interconnected world. This study gives us a greater context of the human experience in culture and society and helps us make sense of our world. Learning the humanities can help deepen our appreciation for the human condition and how we may all be more similar than different. As a result, we may develop more empathy and compassion for each other as we develop our critical thinking skills, which we can carry into our personal and professional lives.

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What Is Humanities?

Humanities is a subset of the liberal arts, though they are often mistaken as being synonymous – a liberal arts education is more general than a humanities one. Studying the humanities can help us answer life's big questions by examining what motivates us as human beings and how our environment and the social constructs we create as a society impact our lives. The humanities can also help explain how we express ourselves through language and art and how these tools are used universally to capture moments throughout different eras in history.

What Is the Difference Between The Humanities and Social Sciences Fields?

Humanities and social science are both subsets of the liberal arts. However, while humanities disciplines and those in the social sciences may overlap, such as studying linguistics or culture, you'll approach their study differently. 

If you study the humanities, you'll take a more subjective approach as you analytically and critically think through broad ideas about human culture and form an opinion based on experience. As a result, you'll rarely use science or math in your studies because you employ a more humanistic approach to learning.

If you study the social sciences, you'll explore the relationship between individuals in a society objectively and scientifically, using scientific research and evidence to support or refute your theories and ideas. The study of social science was developed in the 19th century and is a relatively new field compared to the humanities, which the Ancient Greeks studied.

What Is a Humanities Degree?

A humanities degree can be an associate, bachelor's, master's, PhD, or doctorate. It provides you with a multidisciplinary approach to learning. A curriculum that supports a humanities degree is more historical and theoretical than STEM degrees, for example, because it helps you build your analytical and critical thinking skills and apply them to the challenges facing humanity rather than science or technology. 

A humanities degree generally takes full-time students two to four years to complete between 30 to 120 credit hours. 

If you are curious to explore any of these degree levels in depth, check out our pages of the best online associate degrees, bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, and doctoral degrees

Humanities Majors

There are several popular humanities majors:

You can choose areas of concentration within many of these majors. For example, if you are interested in music, you may be able to concentrate on musical theater, musicology, composition, or music theory. If you are interested in language, you can choose from a foreign language major, a creative writing degree, or even the study of sign language.

Learning the humanities can help deepen our appreciation for the human condition and how we may all be more similar than different.

Humanities Classes

Students often take humanities courses as part of a school's required general education core curriculum regardless of their major. This practice introduces an interdisciplinary approach to learning since many other academic disciplines intersect with the humanities. Humanities classes support a curriculum that helps you think more critically about the world and how we all live in it. Classes take into account our individual and collective experiences as part society.

While titles may vary across schools and programs, course intent and outcomes are similar:

Introduction to Creative Writing

Students have the opportunity to become familiar with the craft and elements of creative writing through assignments and workshops. Instruction may include discussions about point of view, voice, dialogue, setting, and scene and character development.

World History and Culture

Coursework aims to develop students' cultural and historical understanding of Africa, India, China, and Japan in relation to the western world. 

The Black Literary Tradition

The goal of instruction is to develop an awareness of various literary genres including slave narratives, poetry, short stories, fiction, and plays that focus on African American history and the idea of race. Reading assignments can help students foster an understanding of how sexuality, gender, class, and nationality influence a writer's definitions of race and ethnicity.

Appreciation and History of Music

Often taken as part of a student's general education requirements, this class introduces students to the history of Western art and music through an appreciation of the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern periods. Discussions may center around composers, styles, instrumentation, form, and cultural context.

Religions of the World

Instruction's purpose is to bring awareness to the various belief systems in our world and how they compare to each other. Coursework may explore the five major world religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.


Lessons explore the philosophical study of morality, the theory of right and wrong behavior, and the theories of good versus bad and virtue versus vice through the study of the writings of history's great philosophers.

Skills Gained From a Humanities Degree

You can gain skills from a humanities education that may prove invaluable to your personal and professional life. It's often thought that a humanities degree isn't professionally sound. However, the contrary is true. Many jobs rely on skills you can develop while earning a humanities degree which are often the hardest skills to recruit for. These are often soft skills that contribute to your work ethic and values, how you communicate and build relationships, motivate and support others, and problem-solve. 

  • Accountability

  • Quantitative Reasoning

  • Adaptability

  • Analytical and Creative Thinking

  • Collaboration and Teamwork

  • Conflict Resolution, Negotiation, and Leadership

  • Emotional Intelligence and Empathy

  • Oral and Written Communications

Humanities Careers

You can choose from several career paths that are intellectually rewarding, pay well, and provide opportunities for professional growth in and outside the humanities field. These occupations may enable you to work in diverse and even non-traditional environments, which may contribute to your overall job satisfaction. According to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), many occupations in the humanities are anticipated to grow faster than average.

Archivist, Curators, and Museum Workers

Annual Median Salary: $50,120
Job Growth: 19%

Archivists, curators, and museum workers preserve and maintain documents and objects. They assess, appraise, catalog, and preserve permanent historical records and may oversee the collections institutions house.

Art Directors

Annual Median Salary: $100,890
Job Growth: 11%

Art directors are responsible for the visual style of films, TV shows, and other events in the performing arts. They determine which visual elements to include by choosing artwork and graphics to include in a production.

Interpreters and Translators

Annual Median Salary: $49,110
Job Growth: 24%

Interpreters and translators use their fluency in language to convert written and verbal communications from one language to another, one of which is usually English. This may also include sign language for those who are hard of hearing. 

Music Directors and Composers

Annual Median Salary: $49,130
Job Growth: 6%

Music directors and composers lead orchestras, choirs, and other musical groups. They may write and arrange music, choose arrangements best suited to specific audiences and performances, and audition new musicians. 

Technical Writers

Annual Median Salary: $78,060
Job Growth: 12%

Technical writers use their writing skills to create instruction manuals, how-to guides, journal articles, and other documents that make complex processes easy. They may also edit text and incorporate graphic elements into content.

Writers and Authors

Annual Median Salary: $69,510
Job Growth: 4%

Writers and authors write for various forms of media including books, magazines, websites, blogs, movies, plays, TV shows, and news copy. They may also write advertising copy for the internet or newspapers. Writers may be staff writers or work independently as freelancers.

Is a Humanities Degree Worth It?

Yes, a humanities degree is worth it because not only can it provide you with discipline-specific knowledge, but it can also help with personal growth and development. These degrees can help you get career-ready, as well as help shape your values. You'll also likely meet like-minded people through school who may help you master your studies, open the door to professional opportunities, or become lifelong friends.

However, a degree's worth ultimately comes down to your personal and professional goals and financial situation. You'll want to consider a degree that will provide an adequate return on your investment (ROI) and prepare you for average or above job growth. There are also other factors to consider when weighing the pros and cons of earning a humanities degree.

Potential Benefits

  • You can complete a humanities degree entirely online. Studying in the humanities requires a lot of autonomous work, such as reading and writing, so you should be able to find an online school to complete your degree if you have a busy schedule.

  • A humanities degree can be affordable. Many two- and four-year institutions offer degrees in the humanities. Therefore, you'll have many schools to choose from at varying degrees of affordability. If you attend online, your school may offer low tuition, waive campus fees, or charge flat-rate tuition regardless of residency. 

  • You'll learn to think more critically about the world around you. A degree in the humanities can broaden your scope and enable you to see the world through a different lens. You'll have opportunities to hone your analytical and critical thinking skills, which may build empathy and compassion.

Potential Drawbacks

  • There tends to be a low degree of satisfaction among humanities majors. CareerExplorer found that humanities majors score their overall satisfaction with their degree at only 2.8/5. They are most dissatisfied with their job prospects and their degree as a whole.

  • Your income potential may be lower with a humanities degree. You may not earn as much as someone with a bachelor's degree in another discipline. The Humanities Indicator shows that humanities bachelor's degree holders earned an average of $58,000 compared to those with bachelor's degrees in engineering, business, or the physical sciences, who earned $64,000 in 2018.

  • Women who major in the humanities are not immune to the gender gap. The humanities indicator shows that women between the ages of 23-32 who majored in the humanities earned 8% less than their male counterparts on average in 2018. This number jumped to 22% for women between the ages of 48-59.

Bottom Line

A humanities degree can open the door to many traditional and non-traditional careers that pay well and are experiencing fast job growth. It's a versatile degree you can complete affordably on-campus or online. Skills are transferable and applicable to various environments and are appreciated by employers seeking applicants with the soft skills often developed through higher education in the arts and humanities. 

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