Humanities unfairly disregarded in favor of STEMs
Column | The Champagne Socialist
Put down your paintbrushes, close your copies of Wittgenstein and take a breather, glee kids. I know the play’s coming soon, but I need you to rest those chords for just a minute. This is urgent. The survival of the work that you love is in danger. Indeed, I urge all those who have the audacity to study the human condition, my peers in art, theater, history, philosophy, literature, and religion to be alert and man the barricades. The humanities are under attack.
From the pages of The New York Times to the mouths of pundits and politicians alike we hear time and time again that in this 21st century globalized and competitive economy, our government and universities ought to spend more on graduating students with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — also known as STEM. We need to do this to keep our country ahead of the BRICS — the bloc of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa that threaten the stability of the unipolar post-Cold War global order. Not only have people as notable as President Obama espoused this view, but it has even trickled down into the common sense of our parents and peers. In this Gilded Age of dull practicality and fervent materialism, we are looked down on for studying the things that we love, the things that tell us most about what it means to be who we are as individuals and as humans, all because it perhaps doesn’t fetch a high price in the market. Departments of classics, foreign languages and philosophy are being shuttered across the nation. All this while funding for our rivals in STEM is growing exponentially. Yet something strange is happening here. A recent article in Spectrum Magazine, a publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, argues that the United States is actually graduating more than enough STEM-holders to satisfy the demands of employers. If this true, then why are our universities and government spending so much on graduating scientists and mathematicians if we already have enough of them? The author of the article, Robert Charette, gives an answer that implicitly lays the blame at the feet of the one percent writing that: “Companies would rather not pay STEM professionals high salaries with lavish benefits, offer them training on the job or guarantee them decades of stable employment. So having an oversupply of workers, whether domestically educated or imported, is to their benefit. It gives employers a larger pool from which they can pick the “best and the brightest,” and it helps keep wages in check. No less an authority than Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, said as much when in 2007 he advocated boosting the number of skilled immigrants entering the United States so as to “suppress” the wages of their U.S. counterparts, which he considered too high.”
Manufacturing this reserve army of the unemployed and underemployed is all to the detriment of the humanities. According to a report titled, “Heart of the Matter” by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Washington pays less than 20 percent of research in the humanities while covering up to 75 percent of the costs of STEM research. With the humanities left out in the cold by our representatives in Washington and our universities’ administrators and trustees, not to mention the dire prospects of humanities degree-holders, you’d think that enrollment for English, history, theater and the like would’ve collapsed by now. But it isn’t. At least amongst graduate students, that group with an almost masochistic or otherworldly drive for knowledge, a recent story from the Inside Higher Ed reveals that applicants for doctoral programs in the humanities had actually outpaced other disciplines in the last year. Now, of course undergraduates tend to be a bit more pragmatic in their choice of degrees, yet this report points to something very important. The point is that people genuinely want to know who they are and what sense the world makes around them. Humans are narrative and musical creatures who can only apprehend the world and themselves through stories. And that’s what the humanities are, really — the study of the human story, our condition and our experience. The duty of those who study the humanities is to tell and examine those stories. This is a labor of love that is vital to the functioning of a democracy and ought to be rewarded and sustained by our government and our universities.
José Sanchez is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in history and political science. His column, “The Champagne Socialist,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.