Humanities Girl in a STEM World

Humanities Girl in a STEM World


It is no small secret that, in recent years, STEM has been receiving massive support from all sides. Every time you take a seat at a desk, it seems like someone is trying to tell you the importance of STEM subjects and STEM careers. You could look up public libraries in any state and find STEM related programs for even the smallest of children. At a glance, this promotion of STEM seems great and beneficial for our kids; but the truth is, while we’re stirring up dishes full of future computer programmers and chemical engineers, students who wish to pursue a career in the humanities are left on the back burner to grow mold and eventually be flushed down the kitchen drain.

I’m a senior in high school and, as my time as a high school student dwindles down, I’ve been reflecting on my education up to this point; I have to say, I’m disappointed but not shocked. Even though my school district is one of the better ones in my state I still feel cheated for the simple fact that I was never a science- or mathematically-inclined person. Ever since kindergarten I have been in love with English and history, while math and science I tolerated. I’ve always been A/B student in all my classes, but the humanities are where I am most at home - which meant that I (and other humanities kids like me) would always have less opportunities to explore and spread my wings in school. STEM kids, on the other hand, have always had the clubs, the after-school activities, the extra attention from the school bureaucracy.

Humanities even came second in electives. During my junior year I signed up for Humanities 1. We studied a variety of cultures, like Ancient Egypt and Greece, and discussed what made them unique. What made this class different from a regular class was that it wasn’t just reading out of the textbook and regurgitating information back at the teacher through homework or tests. It was more hands-on and discussion based. A project that really stood out to me was when we were learning about Ancient Egypt, and we as a class had to pick an aspect of their culture and somehow recreate it. We chose to focus on death, specifically on funeral rites.

We saw how the way the Ancient Egyptians buried their dead spoke to their beliefs and how they behaved during life. The whole experience was amazing; it was a class-directed project were the teacher was simply there to guide us and make sure we didn’t burn the classroom down. One girl went home and recreated a life size sarcophagus; two classmates created a pharaoh costume and made our teacher wear it; another girl made tapestries with authentic Egyptian prayers; my group recreated the jars that the organs were placed in and the appropriate organs to go along with them. As we were finally putting it all together, we were also answering an overarching, critical question: What does it mean to be human?

At the end of it all, we had come up with a definition. Our teacher had a surprise, though; she told us we’ll never get a true definition because the definition was always changing. Pause for gasps of realization and groans from frustrated students.

By the time the year came to an end, and it was time for me and other juniors to pick our classes for next year, we were all excited to take Humanities II. It would have been similar to the first class, but would go more in depth into more cultures, and we would be answering more questions about humanity. However, luck and the school district were not on our side. Our Humanities teacher told us the only reason the first part ran this year was because the students who took it before us fought to have it included on the roster - now that the seniors (who made up the majority of the students in Humanities I) were leaving, there would be no chance for it to run. We tried to get the class to run before or after school and had kids sign a petition, but it was no use. This wasn’t the only blow for us, as other classes we were looking forward to, such as Creative Writing and Diverse Perspectives in Literature, were not running either. It’s made this last year very disappointing, academically speaking.

Being treated like red-headed stepchildren by schools isn’t the only problem humanities kids face. We’re also mocked for our interests. Anybody who has attended high school can tell you that your last two years are the hardest - not because the classes are harder or there’s more work, but because you are at the point in your life where you’re mapping out your future, and people have a lot of expectations about your plans. Looking for and applying to colleges is already a stressful ordeal, but the added pressure of trying to figure out what you want to do at college makes the task even more daunting. For humanities students, it’s one big nightmare. When you tell people that you want to go into something like English or Creative Writing, they give you this look that’s somewhere between patronizing and pitiful. Teachers and counselors shake their heads at your desired major; parents look in dread and wonder where they went wrong in raising you; you become the family disappointment every time a relative asks you what you want to major in; our STEM peers find our hopes and dreams ridiculous.

The whole process becomes even more demoralizing when you go online and see the statistics. Emsi, a labor market analytic firm, studied data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and found that, while STEM majors in undergraduate and graduate programs have skyrocketed from 388,000 graduates in 2009/10 to 550,000 graduates in 2015/16 - a 45% jump - degrees in the humanities have suffered a 0.4% decrease. I remember when I saw these statistics for the first time last year while looking for potential colleges with my mom. The only thing that stung more than these numbers was the way she looked at me. Her eyes kept darting between me and the computer screen. When she looked at the screen she didn’t seem shocked, as if these jaw-dropping numbers were old news - when she looked at me, it was like I was dying, and she was beginning to plan my funeral. My younger brother walked in the room and asked us what we were doing. I reluctantly showed him the screen and, after reading for half a second, he laughed and said what we were all thinking: “You’re screwed.”

I immediately told him to get lost. That night, I ran to my room to cry my eyes out until I fell asleep. I had nightmares about the numbers chasing me through some horrible blend of college campuses I visited, until they crushed me beneath the weight of their reality. If you could pull up my search history for the next three months, you would see words and phrases like STEM majors, best college majors, most popular college majors, etc. To quote a line from Hamlet, “Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting / That would not let me sleep.” I was torn between my passion of literature and writing and my practical side that did not want to spend the rest of her life flipping burgers. I fought with myself for a while until a thought came to my mind: STEM majors were clearly becoming more popular and were clearly a more profitable choice, but did this mean that investing time and money into a humanities degree was really a waste?

Short answer: no. Long answer: finding jobs isn’t the easiest thing to do when your degree is in something like a foreign language or creative writing, but in the long run you’ll do fine. Susan Adams, in her article “Majoring in the Humanities Does Pay Off, Just Later,” quoting from a new report on career success for liberal arts and science majors, points out:

“While they may not earn as much as professional and pre-professional majors like nurses and business majors when they first get out of school, by the time they are 56-60 years old, considered their peak earning years, they make an average of $66,000, which is $2,000 a year more than those with professional degrees.”

These numbers easily dispel the myth that those with degrees in the humanities will be broke for the rest of their lives. But what about having a job in the first place? Adams addresses that as well:

“5.2% of liberal arts majors are unemployed from the ages of 21-30. That rate drops to 3.5% among 41-to-50-year-olds. Those are decent numbers, especially given the national rate of 6.7%, though they’re not as good as the rates for pre-professionals, 4.2% for recent grads and 3.1% among older workers.”

It appears that, though more students are flocking to STEM majors, those who decide on a liberal arts path will not be in bad shape. The pay gap can be further explained by the jobs liberal art students take: “People with liberal arts degrees fill half of all social service jobs, including counselors, religious, social and community service workers. Those jobs tend to have mediocre pay.”

This report is a ray of hope for all the humanities boys and girls across the nation, but it leaves me wondering: how did we get to this point in the first place? Why did STEM become so popular, and why did humanities have to pay the expense? It all goes back to 2012, when a study by the NCES showed that the United States was behind in education compared to other countries, especially in science and math. This study caused the huge push towards STEM that we see today. In our race towards the top, it feels like we’re climbing over others to get there. The humanities have been left at the bottom of the education pit, and it doesn’t look like things will change anytime soon.

But it needs to. A liberal arts degree is not just a one-way ticket to Barista Town, population: your failure of a child. It’s a valuable tool that the nation needs in it’s toolbox. If we can put aside all the numbers for a second, we would see that majoring in the liberal arts teaches a lot of a skills:  you learn to not only write but to write well and clearly; you gain skills that a machine can’t do; you learn cooperation and problem-solving; you learn to explain your ideas effectively; you learn to adapt to situations; you think creatively and are able to come up with new solutions to problems. These are all skills that are universal and can be applied in a variety of careers, in a variety of ways. This versatility is something you can’t get with a biochemical engineer or a theoretical physicist. And I’m not saying to do a 180 flip and go full humanities (we’re great but not that great). It’s all about balance. We can’t have too much STEM, or the world will be filled with mechanized monotone cyborgs all trying to destroy each other with chemicals and who have no idea how to interact with a barista. On the flip side, we can’t have too much humanities, or the world will be filled with monologuing freaks who wear weird clothes, drone on about the meaning of life, and can’t work a printer.

One way to achieve this balance would be getting rid of STEM and replacing with STREAM which includes reading and art, two important components that are too often left behind. Reading is the core of any and every student’s education - it’s the building block on which the rest can stand on. Without it everything else cannot stand and will quickly fall apart. Art is a more abstract subject that we wave off as something that we let kids do to keep them entertained so they don’t tie up the lunch ladies and steal their cookies, but the truth is it’s a vital part of education. With art in the picture it helps student learn to think creatively and abstractly, and that makes us all unique in the job market. If we were all to learn the same way, grow up, and try to go get jobs, the job market would be a hellscape full of people fighting to the death to get the same job. Why? Because everybody would be the same. Employers would be going through applications of people that are equally qualified and who bring nothing special or individual to their company. Your employment would solely rely on employers playing eenie, meenie, miney mo, and we all remember how fair that was. Instead of trying to force a round peg in a square hole, you create a new hole instead. If reading is the foundation on which this house rests, then art is the cement that glues all the parts of the house together and keeps it there.

My education wasn’t bad as a whole, but, considering my interests, it was very disappointing.  Even when I had a path I wanted to drive down, I felt like I was being steered towards a place I wasn’t fit for by everyone: my parents, my siblings, my extended family, teachers, counselors, and students. They all seemed to know what was best for me. However, I don’t believe this was malicious - in fact, I believe everybody had my best intentions at heart. They were just misguided, and they’re not the only ones. Kids everywhere at every grade level are being driven away from the humanities with  a poisonous stick. By trying to improve STEM we have hurt the liberal arts.

My best advice for anyone stuck between taking the “safe choice” and following your dreams and passions is to take everything with a grain of salt. While statistics are important, they aren’t everything and don’t tell the full story. You also need to have that internal dialogue with yourself about what you love doing and what you’re interested in because, when you do, you always get a step closer to finding what you want. I hope, in the future, we’ll do better on finding a balance between STEM and humanities, so that students will be given a quality education  and will be encouraged to follow their passions - no matter what side of the coin they’re on.

Addison Walton is a graduating high school senior planning to go to Michigan State University to study journalism and creative writing. She writes poetry and short stories, and on topics that interests her such as video games, the fate of the humanities, marginalized representation in literature, writing in general, among other things.

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