Sharma: There’s more to college than STEM degrees

Ravi Sharma

With a new class of college freshmen getting ready to embark on their higher education journey, pursuing passions in art and literature and history, so returns the universal irritant that has pestered liberal arts students for years: “What will you do with your degree?”

The turn of the century has seen the emergence of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in higher education, pushing the humanities into a significant downfall. The government and media remain focused on the immediate contributions to our highly technological society that is plausible for scientists and engineers. Simultaneously, they give a skeptical look toward those pursuing humanities.

To many, philosophy and sociology majors are wasting their time following a path that leads to no applicable skills. This misguided perspective is particularly influential in our current economic state as we struggle for instant and tangible results right out of college. A bloated federal budget makes funding for the humanities a fashionable target for critics attacking government spending. Expenditure is becoming more performance linked as the government strives to emit the illusion of frugality and efficiency. Consequently, it is attractive to slash the budgets of the seemingly quixotic liberal arts over the clearly measurable contributions of STEM fields. Yet despite the intense ridicule, critics have yet to adequately demonstrate the “common knowledge” impracticality of the liberal arts. Furthermore, they fail to see the crucial benefits to society that the humanities can give us.

The passionate battle about the legitimacy of the humanities is a modern one. When Plato and Aristotle were influencing Western philosophy, the sciences and the humanities were one in the same. Many ancient Greek philosophers were conversant scientists and mathematicians. It is only in our post-industrial capitalistic society that a distinction between hard science and the liberal arts has materialized. The reverence to these fields emanates from their usefulness in producing the products, systems and designs that are coveted by society. Simply put, these majors fit comfortably into our existing collective.

While this is beneficial and necessary for society, we also depend on people that don’t fit comfortably. These are the writers, critical thinkers and whistle-blowers the humanities and liberal arts are so capable of producing. Studying social science or economics convincingly surpasses STEM as a preparation to critically develop new solutions to society’s festering problems. When the financial crisis of 2007-08 forced us to rethink the very foundation of our economy and financial regulation, we sought these analytical minds. The scientist, who has been taught a set of fundamental rules and how to apply them, likely adheres blindly to the functionality of the current system. It takes a critical thinker to realize the system is flawed and develop a solution. Likewise, it would be ill advised to have solely engineers develop a new health care system. Humanists are an indispensable part of the process for understanding the broad cultural and societal implications of such legislation.

With the rising costs of higher education in the United States in juxtaposition with the rest of the western world, American students find themselves forced to choose a major with immediate and tangible benefits. As such, a liberal arts education is reclassified as impractical and a luxury for the wealthy. Quite contrarily, there is a deep relationship between the humanities and the functioning of society, one which those calling the liberal arts an extravagance conveniently ignore. Our democratic government requires its citizens to have a sufficient political and social understanding to elect officials in an educated and intelligent manner. The rational and systematic science curriculum is inadequate at accomplishing this.

Furthermore, science alone cannot resolve the cultural and religious disputes around the world. It would be futile to address the territorial conflicts in the Middle East without first having a thorough understanding of how such contention formed. After 9/11, the demand for specialists in Islam and Arabic snowballed overnight. The research and training done in the humanities to meet this call took place over years of liberal arts scholarship. With the United States establishing stronger relationships with countries such as Brazil and Pakistan, our humanists must be competent and ready for the challenge.

It may seem as though I am denouncing the importance of science and engineering; in actuality, I am bringing to attention the need for these fields to co-exist with the social sciences and humanities. As I mentioned before, it is only recently that a distinction between the two was developed. The ties between the sciences and the liberal arts are more profound than people realize. Higher education is rightfully multifaceted; the best work in academia is done with scientists and humanists working together. Fields such as geography and scientific policy draw heavily from the methodologies and philosophies of both areas of study; an integration that is necessary to continue to improve our society. Yet the fight for the worth of the humanities will continue, at least in the near future, as society fails to realize the intangible benefits of the liberal arts.

Ravi Sharma is a graduate student in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan.