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What Do You Do With a B.A in the Humanities? A Lot, Actually

As a society we place a high value on the practical nature of science and business degrees. But what about the practical nature of the humanities? 

Liberal Arts students graduating from Barnard College during the Columbia University 2016 Commencement ceremony in New York May 18, 2016. (Photo credit TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

No matter where you look in today’s world you see people encouraging students to study the STEM fields and to get out of the humanities. From universities, job fairs, to attempts by a bank to get teens to learn financial literacy. Even Obama and presidential candidates get in on the bashing. As a society we tell ourselves that studying the humanities will lead to a life of poverty and unemployment. Since the 1990s the number of students in the humanities has been on a decline, no doubt a sign of the stigma associated with going into fields seen as less than practical. 


Often the concern is seemingly noble; work is supposedly easier to find as a scientist than as a historian. The concept of the philosopher as impoverished goes back even to ancient Greece, when Socrates was portrayed as a barefoot nut teaching students how to get out of paying bills by contemporary playwrights. As someone who tended to study in coffee shops, I can recall several occasions where complete strangers offered advice on the vital need for me to abandon the study of philosophy. “I am concerned for your ability to find a job,” they would tell me. What good Samaritans they must have thought themselves to be.

Where those people on to something? Are humanities majors doomed to lives of menial jobs and reduced income? Is the monetary value of a humanities degree too low to warrant getting it at all?

U.S. President Barack Obama presents the 2014 National Humanities Medal to Annie Dillard, for her profound reflections on human life and nature in poetry and in prose. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Data from PayScale shows that art, theatre, language, history, and philosophy majors can all expect to make above the median income by mid career. While the estimated income values are lower than for STEM fields they are still higher than the income of most Americans and indicate a high return on investment for most students. According to a 2013 study by Georgetown, the unemployment rate for humanities majors is lower than the national average. Of course, not all work done by graduates requires a degree at all; but the idea of the chronically unemployed philosophy major appears to be an exaggeration.  

Perhaps more interestingly, students of philosophy tend to get higher marks on the GMAT than do many business-oriented students. Humanities students also have higher rates of medical school acceptance then many science majors. So much for the idea that those majors won’t be able to compete with the STEM students.

Of course going into the humanities for money is only one reason why a person might do so. One that can’t be on the minds of most undergraduates when they select their classes on medieval literature. The humanities add to the joys of personal life in other ways. They also have tremendous impact on our daily lives and on our societies. As we ask ourselves what studies we value and seek to promote in our society, we should have an eye to the pragmatic aspects of education. However, we must also not rely on poor data and stereotypes when doing so.

US President Barack Obama presents the 2014 National Medal of Arts to author Stephen King during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on September 10, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo credit MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)


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A neural crêpe

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So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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