Column: In a STEM-heavy world, let's not forget about humanities
Double majors, triple minors, internships, clubs, organizations, jobs — college students are constantly bombarded with the need to succeed in their post-collegiate lives, and this pressure frequently begins in high school. Take every Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate class offered, SAT prep, student government, yearbook, varsity-athletics and study-abroad program.
All of this pressure is aimed at molding students into a certain kind of person with a certain set of marketable skills. President Barack Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2015 set aside $170 million within the Department of Education to encourage students to choose careers as science, technology, engineering and mathematics professionals or STEM teachers.
Clearly, this is necessary and important. People are needed who are competent in math and computer science, engineering, the hard sciences and other STEM-related fields to conquer the problems that are confronting the world. Creating leaders and thinkers who are able to take on these tasks is a good thing.
But it is not the way to make a complete person, and it is not the way to build a modern society.
There is something that is being lost in the frenzy: the humanities. According to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 17.2 percent of degrees conferred in 1967 were within a humanities field. In 2011, only 6.9 percent were in the humanities.
Students are taught to look at academic fields for their practical and technical worth. Even when people discuss the benefits of non-humanities majors studying the humanities, they mention that business, medical and law schools prefer students who can think, read and write critically. People ignore the way those skills allow a person to grow. They discuss the practical importance of studying and acquiring foreign-language skills, but they never consider studying languages for their own sake.
But the humanities offer much more. How do I view the world? What is informing my choices? What is leading and motivating my existence as a person? Studying literature, history, philosophy and the arts helps people answer these questions much more coherently and convincingly. They provide the base from which people can build their technical and scientific expertise with purpose and meaning, and they teach people to be skeptical about people who claim to know all the answers — something rarely taught in science classes.
The humanities are about something deeper than learning how to get a job at a top law firm.
“The STEM fields enrich civilization; the humanities enrich the human person, and thus by extension, humanity as a whole,” said Roxanne Perko, a classics graduate student. It is important to have the two interacting in society, she said, because “with the former, man shows what he is capable of doing; the latter shows him who he is capable of being.”
Practically speaking, not everyone should be classics majors. But the real problem is the way the modern culture of frenzy forces people to study certain fields out of fear rather than passion. People tell themselves that if they don’t study STEM fields, there won’t be any good jobs for them. In the process, they deprive society of their real talents and deny themselves the opportunity to study the fields that open up their minds to fundamental questions.
It’s time colleges and universities back off the career preparation and remember their obligation to educate the entire person. Even those who love science and feel their hearts skip when working with technology want to be more than a cog in a system. Everyone needs to have a personhood that is separate from their identity as professionals.
As the British writer G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.” The humanities offer universities the chance to take educating persons, and not merely educated persons, much more seriously.
Casey Hoyack is a senior studying politics, philosophy, economics and law. Follow him on Twitter.