A Different Perspective on the STEM vs Humanities Debate

The New York Times has been stirring up controversy (and page views no doubt) with several articles and op-eds declaring the death of the humanities at American universities, due to recent studies showing declining rates of students graduating with humanities majors. This is, humorously enough, after they published dozens of articles detailing the trials and tribulations that humanities majors faced in the job market, all causing caustic debates between commenters decrying the ‘fools’ that studied things like English, history, and philosophy and those willing to defend such foolish fields.

I’ve often thought that pitting STEM subjects against the humanities was simply a result of emotional reactions to a floundering economy from those on both sides. Humanities majors graduate from the ivory tower and find themselves in the ‘real world,’ controlled more often than not by people who studied business (a topic I’ll tend to later). Dispirited by unemployment, they have trouble looking at the gifts that their humanities education offer. STEM graduates also have some difficulty finding employment, highlighted in this article from the Atlantic, and they must feel a bit cheated after being told that the future of the American economy rested on them. They even had official sanction from Obama and George W.

The reality of the unemployment situation could actually be harsher, hidden behind this emotional debate. STEM and humanities graduates both receive gifts from their educations. The former have skills, the latter have context. To succeed today in America, you probably need both.

One of the greatest gifts from an undergraduate education in the humanities is the ability to make sense of complexity. Studying humanities trains students to take complexity, identify the key actors/players, research the necessary topics, and draw coherent logical conclusions in the form of essays and theses. There are many ways graduates can apply this same process of analyzing complexity to jobs in business, engineering, and just about any other industry.

From my observation, this analytical ability is exactly what is missing from many of those who studied STEM subjects. They are often highly skilled and perform well within their areas of expertise, but they have trouble seeing how their work fits into a larger perspective. This is especially true with engineers and software developers.

This is not to say that humanities majors can waltz into these industries and succeed on the basis of their analytical abilities. They need to acquire the skills that they lack, which often means taking any position they can to gain skills in the workplace and/or self-study. What a lot of humanities majors probably don’t realize–which is where they are missing their ‘gift’–is that it is in certain ways easier to teach oneself how to code, for example, than it is to teach oneself how to analyze complexity and see things from a larger perspective in businesses and organizations.

A final component to this debate is the rise of business majors and MBAs. This article in the NY Times puts the dwindling humanities graduates into perspective, highlighting that it’s less about professors political agendas, as David Brooks argued, and more about gender. Women moved away from the humanities and went towards business degrees. I think the increasing power of women in business is a great thing and that ultimately they are more suited for business management positions than men, but that is the topic of another post. Gender aside, these stats show the flood of business majors entering the job market.

Business majors no doubt do well securing jobs in business after college. This is pretty logical. Obviously those that go into fields like accounting, sales, and marketing can utilize the skills they learned in college to advance the economy. However, given the previous arguments about the STEM and humanities degrees, I’ve often been left wondering what exactly business majors learned in college. I often see individuals with business degrees sitting in management roles within departments like operations and IT. It’s clear to me that those who combine STEM skills with humanities perspective are better suited for these roles.

Ultimately, I think the humanities vs STEM battle is detrimental to progress. Globalization and outsourcing have permanently changed the U.S. economy, sending technical and manufacturing jobs overseas and steering the country towards a ‘service economy.’ However, we still need advances in science and engineering, and in particular innovation within technology. The humanities and STEM will drive this. Business has it’s role too, but to quote Steve Jobs, “it’s not rocket science.”

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