While waiting in line for my stir-fry to be cooked, I overheard a conversation between two undergraduate students, one of whom is in the School of Management (SOM). She was telling her friend about how she tried to enroll in a painting class for the upcoming spring semester, but was barred from taking it because it apparently wasn’t compatible with the business administration degree she was pursuing. I was reminded of another conversation, one that I had with a close friend almost a year ago, where we bonded over our mutual excitement about pursuing a liberal arts education in college and our mutual frustration for those who scorn the humanities in favor of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a whisper of doubt echoing in my head as I put down my deposit for Binghamton University, saying that I would spend the next few years lonely and starved for the company of those with similar intellectual interests. Luckily, I couldn’t have been more wrong, but I will still vigilantly defend humanities majors against those who say they’ll spend their post-graduation unskilled and penniless. I will acknowledge my bias on this topic, but there is a kernel of truth to my advocacy for the liberal arts.
Many students choosing what to pursue in college buckle under the societal pressure to attain an education in the STEM fields, which often promise lucrative and stable careers. The pressures they feel are backed by the numbers. A study released by the National Center for Education Statistics showed a 6-percent national increase in STEM majors — specifically those with a bachelor’s degree or beyond — in the six years after the 2009-10 academic year. As the number of STEM majors increased from 15 percent to 21 percent in this period, the number of humanities majors stayed stagnant at 14 percent. In the starkest terms, as the number of STEM majors rose from 388,000 to 550,000, those fields experienced a 43-percent increase in graduates, while the humanities saw no increase at all. As technological developments occur at an exponential pace, opening up opportunities for innovation and specialization in scientifically and mathematically orientated industries, young adults today are flocking to schools with the intention to graduate with expertise in those industries.
But this cultural and educational trend away from liberal arts degrees doesn’t translate to the careful observation of the current job market. Professionals working in those fields have noticed, and coined the discrepancy “The Global STEM Paradox.” This cultural and economic inconsistency is explained in a recent report by the New York Academy of Sciences. They found that in the United States, company recruiters are continually struggling to fill three-quarters of open positions that require middle- or high-level STEM skills, while Sub-Saharan Africa is lacking the 2.5 million engineers needed to address urgent infrastructure issues. India’s lack of STEM workers with proficiency in essential STEM skill areas is also a major impediment to economic growth, needing to double or even triple the 2008 hiring level in those sectors to keep up with the national economy.
As many capable graduates with shiny engineering, computer science and biomedical degrees as there are prowling around for jobs, vacancies in technical fields like these remain prevalent. While those graduates are qualified in technical terms, they just don’t possess the “soft skills” employers are so desperate to find. These “soft skills,” such as effective communication, critical thinking and teamwork have long been the foundation of the liberal arts education. With an emphasis on analyzing media, participating in meaningful discussion and presenting ideas clearly and precisely, English, philosophy and history majors are among those trained in those areas so essential to even STEM jobs that employers are likely rejecting technically qualified applicants while in need of workers. The value that graduates with humanities degrees have to employers speaks to just how essential solid communication, critical thinking and interpersonal skills are to employers and other employees.
Students involved in programs without a humanities curriculum at their core, such as those in SOM, Watson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences, should endeavor to take what liberal arts courses they can, and the programs should adjust their curriculums accordingly. After all, BU prides itself on preparing students for their post-graduation lives with the award-winning Fleishman Center for Career and Professional Development, so it should make sure its STEM students have that essential exposure. Although the center was recognized in 2017 by the National Career Development Association for its excellence in providing students with career guidance, it should aim to ensure its resources are useful for the entire student body. This not only means stressing the importance of being familiar with the humanities before entering the workforce, but also ensuring that its resources are as effective for all students as it markets them to be.
On a more immediate and personal note, the reason why a humanities-focused education is so important is because those “soft skills” are exercised every day in our relationships with ourselves and others. If you’re unable to bundle your thoughts, infuse them with intention and meaning and share them, how can you be expected to live beyond the confines of your self-narrative and contribute something to society? Of course, claiming that a liberal arts education is the only way to build these skills is ridiculous, but curricular stress on thinking and speaking with a purpose allows us to develop and hone them. The recent push for STEM involvement is problematic not because those fields are inherently somehow inferior, but because it diminishes the great value of studying the humanities. We’re called to be as deeply human as we can be, and we can only achieve this if our search for that instinctive connection is not abandoned after popular culture turns away from it.
Madelaine Hastings is a freshman double-majoring in economics and English.