The recent educational focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects is worthwhile. The technological advances of the 21st century mean that many opportunities will be in those areas, and we need students who are comfortable in them. Girls and young women are exploring areas of study that weren’t available to them before, allowing many women to discover what they love.
But the key point is that they are allowed to find their passions and pursue them. Some students’ passions are to be found elsewhere, and although STEM fields are not the only valuable areas of study today by a long shot, the recent concentration on increasing STEM (leaving less room for the humanities) is misleading many parents and students.
Scholars have begun to express concern over the numbers of students majoring in STEM fields for the wrong reasons or with the wrong expectations. One faulty assumption is that America only needs college graduates who have focused on a STEM field.
In his Sept. 2 Washington Post article “Meet the Parents Who Won't Let their Children Study Literature,” economics writer and public affairs professor Steven Pearlstein expresses concern that students are going into fields that don’t interest them because they believe it is the only way to find a good job after college. Yet, Pearlstein cites surveys of CEOs showing they are most interested in graduates’ skills in critical thinking and writing.
Critical thinking can be learned through deep study of any discipline, which is why students select a major. Writing skills, however, are best learned in writing-intensive classes, which are mostly found in the humanities.
Of greater concern to me is the problem of students selecting majors early to which they are moderately attracted, and sticking with them because their parents insist on it. One of my recent students was a gifted writer. In essay topics, she gravitated toward history, especially the history of women. The depth of understanding she demonstrated in these essays was impressive, but she was an accounting major. Her parents wanted her to be an accountant, and since she “liked math, too,” she had agreed.
Her older brother was already an accountant, and she reported he found the work tedious, but made an excellent living. A year later, however, she updated her brother’s status: He had quit accounting abruptly to work in a human rights field. He was poor, but happy.
I grew up in a different time and family. Like many college students of my generation, I tasted a lot of courses in many fields before final selection of a major. First, I was a philosophy major, loving logic and theories of ethics. Then, as a theater student, I focused on expressing the human condition.
Next, I dove into anthropology, the study of ancient culture and its artifacts. In the advanced courses, I recognized that I simply wasn’t gifted in the science end of anthropology. My mind was analytical, but not in the right way. I found my home in English literature, which I both loved and excelled in.
But what if I had been raised in a generation that seemed to value only science, math and engineering? My sense of self-worth would have declined. Instead of going on to graduate-level work in a subject I adore, I might have taken a low-level tech job.
When we begin to see higher education as merely practical preparation for a financially profitable life of work, we may lose sight of not just the subjects covered in the humanities, but of humanity itself. Culture is founded on ethical theory, artistic expression and appreciation of beauty just as much as it is grounded in a detailed understanding of how the universe works or the mastery of complex systems.
In 2016, studying the liberal arts may seem frivolous, but understanding Aristotle and Shakespeare may be what seems essential later on.
Barbara Parsons is a college English professor and writer who lives in Tacoma's North End. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.