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Society continues to undervalue studies and careers in humanities

It’s a story that we all hear about in school. In the novel “Fahrenheit 451,” Ray Bradbury explains through the character Professor Faber how the last college offering humanities had been closed 40 years prior. What ensues is a world based solely on the pursuit of the sciences, one that focuses on technology but ignores traces of its own history. While we do not face nearly the same situation, it is important to act against a growing de-emphasis of the humanities.

So what are humanities? According to the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, the study of humanities includes topics such as linguistics, literature, history, philosophy, ethics and art. In other words, it usually involves subjects that are associated with creativity, discussion and cultural internationalism. This is contrasted from other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) topics, which are often seen as methodically structured subjects. In today’s educational system, the humanities are ignored despite their importance because of a general focus on predominantly STEM-based curriculums. 

At Walnut, students are given the opportunity to pursue many humanities-based areas: there is a flourishing performing and visual arts community, a considerable amount of offerings for history and a requirement for English literature and foreign language classes. Even at the high school level, however, there exists arguably more competition for STEM courses. While the school provides virtually equal opportunities for students, it’s interesting how the demand for a certain type of course makes itself more apparent: many fellow students at Walnut discuss STEM being more “practical” than the humanities.

In higher education, there is an even greater imbalance between the two aspects of study. According to a 2016 study from Emsi, a labor market firm, examining students at four-year colleges after the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009, “the number of STEM majors in bachelor’s degree-and-above programs has mushroomed, going from 388,000 graduates in 2009-10 to 550,000 in 2015-16—43% growth.” Meanwhile, Emsi states that “degrees in the humanities…declined -0.4%.” This trend still continues to this day; according to the discussion of a study of bachelor’s degrees reported by the National Center for Education Statistics by Forbes, “science, technology, engineering and math…are experiencing the increased graduates that many have called for” while “the humanities are struggling” and experiencing a “student flight” that is “unmistakable.” 

The point of this article is not to paint STEM subjects antagonistically but to instead demonstrate the need for diversity in our education. I’m sure all of us can agree that future scientists, engineers and mathematicians should all know basic content from areas such as literature, linguistics and ethics. Without such a foundation, we can be easily manipulated without knowing the means to question the information we receive. More importantly, a continuing de-emphasis of the humanities can lead to us knowing little of the background of the world in which we live.

While many colleges do promote the liberal arts, which is an interdisciplinary combination between the humanities and STEM, this fails to recognize the sheer emphasis on STEM in the first place. Why is there often a separate engineering college in universities? Why are university rankings so often based on scientific research? Why do we not hear about research in legal theory or history, even though there are such endeavors? The answer to these questions brings us onto our next point—there is simply an increased demand for STEM-based careers.

After the Great Recession, students naturally began to look for jobs with higher incomes. This fact is not necessarily bad: among other things, it has emphasized socio-economic mobility in the educational system and the freedom of students to shape their future. However, it has also limited the focus of students onto a small number of careers; according to the employment website Indeed, many of the highest-paying jobs consist of those from the medical field, the information sciences and analytics. Jobs such as those in education and the social sciences are often ignored because of this small focus.

Here’s a solution: we should work to have both STEM and humanities involved in not only our education but our careers. While this sounds like a far cry from what is possible, we students can begin to shift our focus from monodisciplinary to multidisciplinary. Try to incorporate that side passion that you never cared to study. Try to look at courses or curriculum offerings that have a true liberal arts emphasis. Last, even though you may be pursuing a STEM career, try to find a way to incorporate any aspect of the humanities. Some examples could be researching ethics in the sciences, using linguistics to increase the extent of math education and publishing papers as a programmer. You do not need to change your career entirely; with just a small change, you could be the one reversing the trend.

As Faber says in “Fahrenheit 451,” “Stuff your eyes with wonder…Live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”

By Landon Park, Staff writer
Editorial cartoon by Remy Wong