You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Study Humanities But…

Photo by Blaz Photo on Unsplash

While I cherish the idea of autonomy, life experience and research argue persuasively that my choices are (while still choices) rooted in the bedrock of where I was born, to whom, how I was raised and what it took to get away from all that.

University majors and mental health

“Students who study humanities, social work and counselling were more likely to report childhood adversities, which are strongly associated with poor mental health” according to McLafferty et al. (2022) in the study ‘Variations in psychological disorders, suicidality, and help-seeking behaviour among college students from different academic disciplines‘.

The authors’ findings are not unique: “A large, cross-sectional study spanning 81 American universities found that students studying art and design presented with the highest rates of mental illness. Almost 45% of art and design students reported at least one disorder, followed closely by humanities (39%). Art and humanities students also had the highest rates of suicidal ideation and over one fifth of students from these disciplines reported having engaged in self-injury” (McLafferty et al., 2022).

This seems entirely plausible.

Unfortunately, it also seems like the sort of thing that could be weaponized against already beleaguered arts and humanities courses and practitioners. Touchy-feely BS for people who can’t hack a real job, etc.

McLafferty et al. (2022) note: “Disciplines demonstrating the lowest rates of mental illness included engineering (31%), public health (28%) nursing (28%) and business (27%). Likewise, a recent study conducted reported that students from arts and humanities, social work, and behavioural, and social sciences, were more likely to report emotional and substance use disorders in comparison to their peers from business or engineering disciplines.”

The bottom line

Observed through a certain lens, this suggests that pragmatic, socially desirable subjects attract composed, socially desirable students; with the obvious, if unarticulated, corollary that arts and humanities are for damaged bohemian types who can’t hold it together long enough to learn quadratic equations, or whatever.

I can see why people might think that, and perhaps they’d be right.

Numerous studies find a strong correlation between parental socioeconomic status (SES) and their children’s academic achievement (Saifi & Mahmood, 2011; Azhar et al., 2014; Lam, 2014, etc.)

Academic disciplines such as engineering and health sciences are resource intensive. Ideally, students will have access to high quality labs and IT equipment from primary school onwards. Ideally, they will also have personal tech — laptops, tablets, etc. — that facilitates connection and learning.

Students from families lower on the socioeconomic scale are less likely to have personal technology, reliable home internet, and so forth. They are also more likely to go to underfunded schools where resources are limited.

When I was in school in the 1990s we were lucky to have Bunsen burners and space to mix hydrogen peroxide and baking soda; my teachers wrote exam questions on the board because the school couldn’t afford Xerox paper. My family could stretch to the graphing calculator required for advanced math classes, but I wouldn’t get my first laptop until 1999.

What I did have access to was books. One thing the United States is blessed with an abundance of is libraries (cheers, Mr Carnegie, I’ll try not to think too hard about how you made your money). Even my home town, pop. 4800, had a substantial, well-stocked library with plenty of cozy reading spaces, stacks of periodicals and regular free activities. It was my refuge, my favorite place, a source of endless bounty.

Having a predilection for reading and writing, I also had a space where these were valued and supported. If I’d had a predilection for trigonometry or building radio cars, there would have been no such space or support.

Steered by circumstances

The Covid-19 pandemic threw learning inequalities into sharp relief: “Children from families with a low SES are less likely to have access to remote learning (UNESCO, 2021), are less often provided with active learning assistance from their schools (Tomasik et al., 2020), and spend less time on learning (Meeter, 2021) than children from families with a high SES. Moreover, parents with a high SES are more likely to provide greater psychological support for their children (OECD, 2019),” reported Hammerstein et al. (2021).

Take an imaginative leap with me: A fourth or fifth grader has a nascent knack for programming. But they don’t have a computer at home, or they do, but share it with several family members and they can only afford a cheap, shaky internet connection. During the pandemic, this kid was out of school for 12, 18, 24 months, with minimal access to educators or learning materials.

They are fortunate that their fascination with the logic of computer language applies to English too. They do still have access to books and reading materials, and they’re sharp enough to learn to craft a strong essay or article by imitation.

They get back to school and the language arts teacher notices their progress, encourages them, makes sure they have access to the school library, gives them extra feedback on their writing.

Meanwhile, they’ve dropped behind their well-to-do peers in IT, simply because they haven’t had the tools or training. The IT teacher, like the language arts teacher, focuses their attention on the strongest students and fails to notice the lost potential of this particular kid.

Naturally, the skillset that gets the most care and attention is the one that flourishes. By the time university rolls around, this student is poised for success in the humanities, perhaps never to realize how financial circumstances subtly but ineluctably shaped their academic trajectory.

Self-fulfilling prophecies

It takes courage and gusto to believe in one’s weaknesses. In my head, I’m terrible at maths and mediocre at science (until math gets involved, then I’m terrible at that too).

This self-perception solidified to fact in my head over years, following the switch from a pre-med track to English Literature in my second year of university. It was wrenching to give up on a long-held goal, but the hard reality was all my English and History professors were encouraging me to major in one or the other, and I was barely scraping by in science.

Telling myself I “couldn’t” hack the math and science was a self-soothing mechanism. However, like many palliatives, it may not have been entirely benign.

I took Algebra I and II, trigonometry and statistics, geometry, and calculus in high school: straight As (though seasoned with tears of frustration); I also took general science, chemistry, physics and biology: A, A, A and A. This rather complicates the “couldn’t” narrative. Sure, I’ve forgotten it all now, but I did learn it — even excelled — at secondary school.

What broke me was the leap to university level, where chemistry became calculus and physics became flat-out terrifying.

If I’d had access to more challenging high school courses, would I have stayed on the pre-med track?

If I’d had greater self-confidence…?

If I’d been aware of the help available…?

The right decision for the wrong reasons

Am I happier as a writer and educator than I would have been as a cog in the moribund US healthcare system? No doubt.

But I wish I’d made that decision from a position of self-confidence and clarity, not an overwhelming fear of failure.

  • When you grow up poor and see an escape route, you really, really don’t want to miss out.
  • When you feel excluded because of how you dress, where you live, what you can’t afford, you will do most anything to blend in.
  • When your financial situation has never not been precarious, you want to stay safe.

Failing classes, tanking your GPA, needing more time to graduate: these have different consequences for well-to-do students and those scraping by on scholarships, loans and work study jobs.

Links in a chain

Difficult circumstances are not always merely socioeconomic; there are certainly young people from affluent backgrounds who have had adverse childhood experiences. It would be wrong, though, to discount the exacerbating effects of poverty on issues like intimate partner violence, child abuse and neglect, substance misuse, incarceration and mental health difficulties.

There are many ways poverty shapes people’s choices and chances, from birth onwards. My hypothetical scenario is just one of many that could shed light on how socioeconomics influence an individual’s choice of study and mental health.

What are your experiences or observations regarding the relationship between study/career choice, mental health and socioeconomics? Please share your reflections in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke