STEM isn’t “Smarter” — It’s Just More Capitalist
If you’re one of the thousands of students every year who plan on getting a degree in something that starts with “Creative,” “Liberal,” “Classic,” “Cultural,” or “Interdisciplinary,” then you’ve probably already realized what you’re in for.
If your friends haven’t asked if you want to be a teacher yet, or your parents haven’t told you that your career choice “could just be a hobby”, then they’re probably also linguistic anthropology and Japanese literature and art history majors. What you can’t escape hearing, however, are politicians saying that “it isn’t a vital interest of the state” to have people working in your field of choice.
In fact, it appears that many politicians seem to voice sentiments similar to Florida governor Rick Scott’s, who directed that comment toward anthropology majors. Though a significant number of proponents of government subsidies in education that exclude the liberal arts and humanities tend to lean Republican or conservative, these areas of study are still less prioritized than STEM-related subjects across the entire political field. President Obama once commented that “folks could make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” though he later apologized and clarified the comment.
Pres. Obama wasn’t endorsing what we traditionally consider to be a STEM field, but was rather promoting trade schools and crafts (such as carpenter or plumbing school), fields that are also often devalued when compared to college degrees. However, skilled trades are still considered “practical.” They directly contribute to infrastructure and market exchange and tends to focus on providing services to others. Liberal arts, fine arts, and humanities, on the other hand, get a bad rep for supposedly being “frivolous” degrees. Artists, writers, anthropologists, historians — when we think of people’s motives for pursuing these careers, we think it must be personal fulfillment. It’s difficult for many of us to see how these subjects “contribute” to society and so to us, they become selfish pursuits or wastes of time.
What starts to become clear is that there is a pervasive idea that the primary thing that students should be considering when pursuing higher education is how valuable their education will be to our economic mode of production. The idea that a field of study is not worth going into because it’s unlikely to bring in money or because it doesn’t contribute to society is one of the most common criticisms I hear about studying liberal/fine arts and humanities.
With titles such as “Where the Jobs Are, and the College Grads Aren’t”, articles that complain of “too many liberal arts graduates and not enough science and engineering students” seem to blame these students for having difficulty finding a job. There’s no mention of the fact that if STEM fields weren’t intentionally kept exclusive, then the field would start to lose value. If everyone was an engineer, engineers would no longer get paid as much. And yet the demand for STEM majors is constantly growing — in response to a constantly growing need for economic development.
“Once all natural and social capital has been extracted, there will be no source of economic capital. Without capital, an economy loses its ability to produce; it tends toward economic entropy. Today’s capitalistic economies quite simply are not sustainable .” — John Ikerd
Indeed, it’s no secret that the main reason we tend to devalue liberal arts and humanities education is because it is simply not profitable. Politicians don’t want to fund it because they feel that they won’t get anything out of it — their focus is on improving industry. As a result, they see engineers, software developers, scientists, administrative professionals, analysts, and other “skilled” professions as the most valuable and subsequently put more funding into these fields.
Early Western universities tended to focus on interdisciplinary learning. Students were encouraged to attend university in order to gain more well-rounded knowledge and learn critical thinking skills through studying rhetoric and logic. Now, college is essentially a job-training program.
Contributing to society by preserving history, by providing the public with art and culture, by working for nonprofit causes, by analyzing and improving our own society and social systems — none of that counts as contribution. Instead, we see contribution as being limited to industry and market exchange. None of this is new of course: it’s an ideal that has stuck with us since the the Industrial Revolution. But how does it make sense?
The amount of capital that we produce or have the potential to produce doesn’t indicate anything about our worth as people, and by extension, the worth of our education. So why are we still obligated to be “productive members of society” and sacrifice our own happiness in order to attain some fabricated standard of financial success? Why is it that we are thought of as entitled or selfish because we’d rather prioritize ourselves rather than a system that was designed to profit of off our backs?
“The Congressional Budget Office’s most recent baseline indicates that the federal government is still expected to produce $110 billion in profits from its student loans over the next decade.” — Senator Elizabeth Warren
Not only that but the shaming of liberal arts, humanities, and fine arts students ignores the many barriers that continue to keep STEM a highly exclusive field. The gender gap in the engineering, math, and technology fields is a well-documented, and a number of methods from scholarship programs to ad campaigns have been established to encourage more women to enter STEM fields.
Though women earn over half of the bachelor’s degrees given in biological sciences, other areas of study in the STEM fields are heavily male-dominated with only 19% of engineering degrees and 18% of computer science degrees received by women. These statistics don’t take into account the intersecting effects of sexism and racism on women of color, of which only 11.2% of science and engineering degrees are awarded to. It’s not that women aren’t interested in STEM or aren’t good enough at math and science — the exclusion of women from science and math has roots in a long history of misogynistic cultural perceptions. Studies have shown that women show an aptitude for STEM-related studies at roughly the same average as men, but are less likely to pursue these areas because of the discouraging effect of sexist stereotypes.
What’s interesting is the fact that this isn’t the first time men deliberately took over a profitable industry. Throughout history, society has often devalued work associated with women. As more women enter a career, the pay for that career drops. Child-care services, one of the most woman-dominated fields in the country, is also one of the lowest-paid.
“Nurturant work is devalued in markets because of its traditional link to women’s work in the home […] Jobs that are typically filled by women, like maids, are paid less than comparable men’s jobs like janitors.” — Madonna Harrington Meyer, Care Work: Gender, Labor, and the Welfare State
Take computer programming, for example. During the Space Race of the 1950s and early 60s, hundreds of “keypunch girls” worked in the control systems beneath NASA to launch men into space. As computer science grew in commercial value, droves of women began to leave their “keypunch” jobs and went straight for programming and systems analysis positions. It wasn’t long before computer programming was established as “women’s work”, while hardware engineering was considered a man’s job.
That’s not all: most of these early computer programming majors were housed with liberal arts majors. While it was still a woman-dominated field, computer science was not considered a “hard” science at all. It was instead lumped in with the same majors that we now consider to be the polar opposite of engineering and technology — primarily because it was woman-dominated.
Considering the fact that many of the degree programs that are currently dominated by women, such as English and education, are considered part of liberal arts and humanities, it’s no coincidence that our concept of what is a “valuable” field is also skewed by gender bias. Many of the careers and areas of study that are considered part of the liberal arts and humanities are fields that are traditionally viewed as “feminine”. In other words, they tend to focus on communication and guidance, such as teaching, therapy, and social work, or are associated with creativity and personal expression, like literature and art. The ability to acquire resources, increase power, and expand civilization become the most valuable skills when looking through a male-oriented, Eurocentric lens — so naturally, none of these “feminine” skillsets would receive the same priority.
Even the arguments that STEM fields are more challenging and require more skilled labor is lofty at best. Though there’s no arguing that the skills needed to succeed in math, science, and technology programs are usually highly technical and specialized, the skills that are represented in liberal arts and humanities majors are not any less impressive or difficult. Rhetorical analysis, communication, and composition skills have a wider range of applications than STEM skills. And just like art, writing, and film techniques, all of these skills require extensive practice and great attention to detail in order to develop and perfect over time.
A more significant difference, it seems, would be the difficulty of the STEM curriculum in school compared to humanities, liberal arts, and fine arts curricula. Part of society’s push to create more STEM graduates is the implementation of more and more advanced math and science classes early on in high school. Though the difficulty of high school curricula has increased for all subjects over the past several decades, math and science classes have changed the most in response to a still increasing demand for engineers and scientists. This compares to significantly less advanced classes in English, history, art and drama, and social studies. So while undergraduate STEM programs are designing their curricula for students who are already well-versed in advanced math and science courses, most incoming freshman pursuing a liberal arts, fine arts, or humanities-related major have only been able to study the basics of those subjects in school. So perhaps the curriculum really is easier for some people — because it has been encouraged that way.
“The vast majority of the human race, and the vast majority of the college-educated human race, never need any mathematics beyond arithmetic to survive successfully.” — Underwood Dudley, mathematician
In addition, the truth about our job prospects is actually much less discouraging than what you may have been led to believe. Contrary to the “a pizza can feed a family of four” jokes, many employers are actually seeking the kind of broad and interdisciplinary education that a liberal arts or humanities-related degree can provide. Skills such as communicating effectively, writing and researching well, and creativity are all flexible abilities that can be applied to a wide variety of careers. In fact, having a degree with broad applications can allow one to pursue multiple different career opportunities throughout one’s life, while a highly specialized education may not.
A highly specialized education may be able to bring in a larger paycheck, but it can also be a huge burden when it comes to job-hunting. 74% of STEM bachelor’s degree recipients aren’t even employed in the STEM field at all.
You would be surprised by the number of individuals with high-paying careers that started out with an undergrad degree in a liberal arts major. Philosophy and journalism majors have the highest acceptance rates to law school, at 82 and 76 percent respectively. In addition, humanities and social science majors who pursue graduate degrees earn even more than professional/pre-professional majors.
“At their peak earning ages […] humanities and social-science majors earned $66,185, putting them some $2,000 ahead of professional and pre-professional majors in the same age bracket.” — Beckie Supiano, “How Liberal Arts Majors Fare in the Long Haul”
Yet still, when the topic of school arises and we’re all forced to answer the inevitable question, “So what are you majoring in?” it always becomes painfully clear to me that in spite of the intrinsic value these studies have and the amount of work that many put into it, we’ll always have to face the attitude that they’re an easy A at best or a wasteful luxury at worst.
For me, it was a careful decision to pursue anthropology and journalism. The field of anthropology is slowly but steadily strengthening its ties to nonprofit work and social activism. Journalism supplements this well and gives me a professional medium to communicate my research and activism. By majoring in these fields, I have the opportunity to apply the skills and interests I already have toward causes that matter. Does that make me a “productive member of society”? Maybe it does. But perhaps a better question would be: should it even matter?