There is one conversation that I have heard often, especially at NC State, and it is one that I would like to address now: the humanities and social sciences versus STEM rivalry. I am not the first to broach this topic, and I will surely not be the last, but at a university that places a strong emphasis on the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), particularly engineering, it’s one that I like to have, even if I am often left feeling chastised for my life choices.
This time around, however, I found myself wondering how my supposed opposition perceived the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHASS). When I asked Sahil Karuturi, a third-year studying computer science, about his general opinions on this discourse, he reflected on what measurement we consider professions and degrees.
“I think that every occupation and major has a role in society,” Karuturi said. “Some roles are definitely less valuable than others in terms of utility, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be the only metric that you have to judge things by.”
As a CHASS student, I couldn’t help but question this argument. The concept of utility has the pretense of being tangible and, therefore, STEM-related, when this is simply the modern day connotation of the word. One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of “utility” is “fitness for some purpose or worth to some end,” and this truth can be found in any area of study. The value of how certain studies are utilized is another question altogether and subjective in itself, inherently making my opinion of certain societal roles different from Karuturi’s.
When I directly asked about the divide between CHASS and STEM, he had to consider it more thoughtfully.
“If [CHASS students] ever talk about how hard their classes are, it's like ‘Really?’, but I don’t think it’s really that serious,” Karuturi said. “It’s not really a competition on who’s having a harder time at life right now. Certainly not, but if you were to start a competition, engineering students would get very defensive.”
This is amusing as this is an accurate reflection of my personal experience when conversing with engineering students, though, in truth, I know it’s not a competition. Perhaps I’ve known that for a great deal of my life, but how could I not try to compete, especially with the world putting anything STEM-related on a pedestal? It’s not about rivalry so much as it is about simply recognizing that liberal arts have an essential place in society too.
I found that, in my conversation with Sara Thornton, a fourth-year studying electrical engineering, that recognition was present.
“It’s nice to have that diverse community with people who take similar classes to me and then with people who have that different perspective being in humanities and social sciences,” Thornton said. “They always bring a different perspective to things. We’ve been able to have conversations that don’t normally come up in engineering.”
As we continued to discuss her background and experiences, Thornton mentioned the value of being intentional in who you become involved with.
“The point of college is not just to surround yourself with people in your major,” Thornton said. “Once I go into an engineering job, I’m not just going to be surrounded by engineering majors. I’m going to be working with marketing people or policy people.”
Thornton addresses a fundamental aspect of why I find this conversation so meaningful. In college, taunts at these opposing studies may be thrown behind closed doors or only amongst close groups, but real life doesn’t look like this. We are surrounded by people with different educational backgrounds every day, and to only pretend to respect them and the work they put into receiving their degree or the work they do is not enough.
There are different values that people from these different backgrounds can offer, and Dhuru Patel, a fourth-year studying human biology, touches on this.
“A STEM degree is going to give you a different skill set and mindset than a humanities degree,” Patel said. “A STEM education is very analytical and product-oriented, whereas a liberal arts education is more applicable to things that don’t necessarily have an end product.”
When I asked him about the divide between CHASS and STEM, his response is a callback to the idea of intentionality.
“If you have just one group of friends, if I had all pre-med friends, it would be an echo chamber for anything medical; anything else would pale in comparison,” Patel said. “I think everyone is a product of their environment and their experiences.”
It is essential that each of us pursue the seemingly radical idea of engaging with others who study contrasting subjects compared to our own, not only to broaden our environments and ways of thinking but to become better students and, hopefully, better people. In this pursuit, we will become more thoughtful in how we benefit from the contributions of varying individuals and more genuine in our connections with one another, whether it be a person with a background in history or one in mechanical engineering, inevitably instilling the value of our collective work.