By Jessica Kelso
Elm Staff Writer
The age-old debate of whether STEM or humanities is more valuable in the modern day now creeps into education as undergraduate institutions appear to favor hard sciences over liberal arts.
West Virginia University already implemented this change in values; they no longer offer world languages or creative writing classes, according to a New York Times article.
“Interest in English and world languages is declining nationally,” the article claims. “The number of bachelor’s degrees in world languages, literature and linguistics awarded annually fell by 25 percent nationally.”
The baseline assumption of why this shift is happening is that it seems society favors STEM subjects over humanities and college trends are simply reflecting this change in values. But could there be more to the decline in humanities?
Consider the values of STEM versus humanity fields. According to Inside Higher Ed, “STEM centers not on the problematic of the subject doing the work but on the value of the work being done.” Essentially, STEM focuses on concrete outcomes and facts rather than the act of learning and doing the work to achieve a goal.
Contrastingly, humanities push society to consider “the human measure of pervasive social values and alignments.”
According to Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Mala Misra, “[humanities] allow us to work toward protecting the most vulnerable people in our communities. These are things that, even though we don’t monetarily value them as a society, they are placed at a high value in terms of our personal esteem.”
In modern society, the economy is based on the concrete aspects of life — STEM — but personal lives are often based on abstract concepts — humanities.
“We love television,” Dr. Misra said. “We love movies and performing arts, and these are the things that give our lives meaning.”
She also believes that there are two separate factors that contribute to the STEM versus humanities debate: what we value and what we are willing to pay for.
“Having a STEM degree has proven to be a direct path to a middle class lifestyle,” Dr. Misra said. “Economic security is very compelling.”
Stigma surrounding four-year degrees in humanities relates the idea that a person will not be employable post-graduation, driving students to pursue STEM degrees and careers.
Yet is “economic security” enough to push humanities to the backburner? Will the decrease in humanities majors affect society?
Anthropology and German double major sophomore Klara Pecher believes that STEM degrees follow niche concepts and rules that humanities do not have.
“Anthropology follows the methods,” Pecher said, referencing the commonly known and used scientific method.
In STEM, lab reports and concrete data are expected, but humanities seem to push analysis of already complete works.
“No narrative — no articulation of one’s stance toward things — is innocent or objective,” according to Inside Higher Ed. “The gaze of STEM is outward focused: there’s a world out there endlessly in need of greater understanding, mapping, mastery.”
While different objectives in each field inherently change the value of one’s work, Dr. Misra argues that a person can gain the skills needed to live in the world with either a STEM or humanities degree.
“I don’t think one is more useful than the other,” Dr. Misra said.
Pecher also believes that “the actual outcome and usefulness and importance [of STEM and humanities degrees] is the same.”
As a liberal arts college, Washington College seems to present itself as a fairly neutral party in the debate.
“I don’t think one [degree] is pushed more than another,” Pecher says. “I think it depends on what the person wants to do…[Here] it’s easier for me to pursue all the things I want to pursue.”
Dr. Misra agrees.
At WC, “everyone is taking classes across the curriculum,” Dr. Misra said. The school “has opportunities for people across all disciplines.”
While some schools appear to move toward STEM-favored curriculums and cut humanities programs from budgets, WC does not appear to follow this trend.
Even as a liberal arts college, STEM programs are apparent in the John S. Toll Science Center, and humanities are emphasized with supplemental class writing and the Rose O’Neill Literary House on campus.
“We have this bonus of being in this particular location and having a really active community of people who are interested in environmental science,” Dr. Misra says. “If anything, it expands their opportunity.”
Elm Archive Photo
Photo caption: The John S. Toll Science Center hosts the majority of the College’s STEM departments.