Last week, my fellow Technician columnist Kristina Beek wrote a column on the divide between liberal arts majors and science, technology, mathematics and engineering (STEM) majors, which struck a nerve with me. In her piece, she discusses the so-called rivalry between the two and the value of a diversity of educational backgrounds. However, it was a single word from a student’s quote in Beek’s piece that really caught my eye: “utility.”
The student’s quote insinuated that STEM degrees have more utility than other degrees. But why do we think of STEM fields as possessing more “utility” than humanities and social sciences? There is indeed a pervasive idea that humanities and social science degrees lack usefulness. You can’t do anything with it. You aren’t employable. It isn’t practical. It isn’t productive.
We have unfortunately been fed this narrative over and over, which discusses how degrees in the humanities and social sciences are less valuable. We’ve been fed this narrative by parents, counselors, peers, media and even politicians. All the while, many liberal arts students are finding great fulfillment in their chosen field of study. I know I am. I find genuine gratification in my major – political science – and knowing myself, I doubt that I’d find that same fulfillment in another major.
However, I am not naïve enough to pretend that a sense of self-fulfillment is what liberal arts naysayers mean when they refer to the “value” of a degree. So, what is being referenced by the use of descriptors like “value,” “utility” and “usefulness?” I’d propound that those engaging in this rhetoric really mean that humanities and social science are less “productive” in a capitalist economic sense. It is a question of whether the market finds certain skills or knowledge valuable – and little else.
Many who push back against the devaluation of the humanities and social sciences do so by citing figures showing that graduates of these fields are in fact employable. And they’re right. The difference in unemployment rates between college-educated STEM workers and college-educated non-STEM workers is negligible. Many companies actively seek out liberal arts majors due to their critical thinking, analytical and communication skills.
However, employability is irrelevant to the argument at hand. I don’t wish to deepen the false dichotomy between STEM and liberal arts, but to simply emphasize the inherent value in the study of humanities and social science independent of market economics. Disciplines in these fields enrich our world and our individual perspectives immeasurably. They encourage us to practice curiosity and critical thinking daily. They can entertain us, bring us joy. They ask us to grapple with questions of the human condition. They help us understand ourselves, others, and the institutions that shape our lives.
Few will argue that the liberal arts lack value altogether, but rather, in the 21st century, many believe a STEM education is superior. The proponents of this belief argue that STEM majors simply offer more value to society. They may frame STEM superiority as a product of its ability to contribute to societal “progress.”
Yet, a vision of progress that is so narrow as to exclude the humanities and social science as potential contributors to progress is a bleak, dystopian vision. All of the technological advancements, medical miracles and well-engineered wonders in the world mean little if we leave behind our understanding of our own humanity – an understanding of humanity that each discipline in the humanities and social science offers a unique perspective on.
Other critics contend that liberal arts disciplines cease to exist outside the walls of academia. The study of silly things like art history, philosophy or – God forbid – gender studies are self-indulgent and aren’t applicable to the real world. While it may be true that these disciplines don’t offer a clear path to gainful employment after graduation, the value of the concepts explored in the study of “impractical” fields extends beyond clear application to the workforce. The knowledge acquired through the study of humanities and social science – either through traditional academia or completely outside it – touches every part of human existence in a way that defies quantification and economic valuation.
We minimize the importance of the humanities and social sciences at our own peril. Ultimately, choosing to focus solely on the capitalist value of these fields divorces us from our humanity in a way that can only hurt us.