The rise of STEM, the fall of humanities

Posted: December 17, 2023

Fewer than one in ten students graduate with a humanities degree

 

Madeline Ciccarelli bombed her math test. After staring at her grade for a few seconds in a state of deep contemplation, she shook it off, smiled, and promptly moved on with her day. “I’m not too worried about it,” she said. “I’m just not a math person…never have been.” 

Every even day, Lily Ziniewicz dreads walking up three flights of stairs and into AP Literature. “English is stressful and subjective, I would much rather be in anatomy…science is superior,” she said. “No hate to Sauer though,” she quickly added. 

 Tenzin Chosang’s academic interests cross traditional lines. While she is an AP art student and spends her weekends painting she is also a math and science enthusiast hoping to pursue a career in medicine.

“My passion for the humanities and STEM derives from the opposite nature between the two. One allows my brain to depend on hard facts and patterns, the objective nature of STEM subjects allow me to tune out and focus on a definitive answer. The meticulous nature of subjects like math are relaxing, a bunch of steps that’ll eventually lead to a right answer. Same goes with science, just crunching terms and patterns,” Chosang explained. “The humanities [unlike math and science] allow a break from this type of thinking. Specifically the arts…I can worry less about doing things right and instead focus on just…doing,” she concluded. 

 As students work their way through high school and explore their interests, somewhere along the way students tend to define themselves either as a math/science person or an english/history person. 

Although these categories are often initially used as desperate conversation starters or an excuse for poor test grades, the math versus english distinction often has broader implications, such as on students’ college major selection. Math/science people tend to pick up STEM majors, such as engineering, pre-med, or psychology, while english/history people focus on humanities majors, including English and history, but also, religious studies, art, or journalism.

 Historically, the number of students majoring in STEM and the number of students majoring in humanities have been similar, but over the past decade a new trend has emerged: the number of graduates majoring in humanities has drastically declined and is continuing to do so. In 1954, 36 percent of Harvard undergraduates majored in the humanities, in 2012, that percentage was down to 20, and evidence suggests it will continue its downward trend (Wall Street Journal). 

What factors sparked this sudden downturn? And, more importantly for students, should this trend impact your high school focus and self-proclaimed identity as a math versus english person?

STEM majors and money

 

Various explanations emerge for this new trend. The first is perfectly encapsulated by Senior English teacher Kristofer Sauer’s response. “Money,” he said when asked why fewer students are majoring in humanities.

 Many Minnehaha seniors affirm that their interest in STEM is merely because science, technology, engineering, and math will get them a higher paying job in an unpredictable world.

“I want to be an engineer because I think it’s a rational career and will get me a job in today’s market,” noted senior Hailey Siwek. “So I’m majoring in engineering in college.”

 At first glance, studies assert this claim. On average, graduates with STEM majors earn an initial starting salary of $10,000 to $30,000 more per year than those who studied humanities. However, overtime, despite a lower starting rate, humanities majors bridge that initial pay gap completely (Huntington news). 

“Humanities majors are far more flexible in their future career paths; they are not tied down to a single specialty, allowing them to shift into a variety of jobs including the high-paying fields of management, business, financial operations and law,” wrote Marie Senescall, in her Huntigton news article, “Disparities between humanities and STEM co-op pay creates misconceptions.”

 People who graduate with humanities degrees ultimately report equal satisfaction with their wages to those who majored in STEM, debunking the misconception that STEM jobs have higher salaries than those in other fields, a belief held by many MA students and startling 71 percent of all Americans (Huntington News).  

Cuts to humanities departments diminish interest

 

Others argue the sudden drop in humanities majors is a fiscal problem: cuts to humanities departments have become extreme and routine. At Iowa State University, the administration announced budget cuts of $15 million by 2026 in their College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. According to The Gazette, humanities programs like history saw cuts of over $950,000, compared to computer science, which only saw cuts of around $68,000.

 Colleges and universities fail to see the necessity of humanities research and teaching in today’s economy, and, henceforth, find it easier to cut down on humanities programs than find other solutions or turn towards other departments. Flashy new labs and cutting edge technology draw more students into STEM fields while underfunded and overworked humanities departments lose members. “I really want to go to Notre Dame to study engineering,” said senior Oletha Collins. “They have this incredible space I actually got to see in person called the Fitzpatrick hall of engineering” she noted eagerly.

 The under-funding of humanities STEMs from the top (pun intended), and is an issue on the federal level as well. According  to The Humanities Commons, The National Science Foundation spent $7.16 billion on research in 2022 out of a total budget of $8.84 billion–that includes a billion dollars for STEM education. The National Institutes of Health budget was $41.2 billion for 2022. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) had an overall budget of $180 million. Assuming eighty percent of that goes directly to research, the NEH’s research programs budget is 0.015% of the federal total.

Humanities departments aren’t just dying out because of a lack of interest, instead they are being nullified and overtaken by unnecessary budget cuts.  

Why do the liberal arts matter?

 

“I think the humanities are unique because they leave you incredibly well prepared for any carer you might choose to go into,” said foreign language department chair and Latin teacher, Johanna Beck. 

Graduate school admission

 

At times, incorporating humanities studies into your college curriculum may increase your chances at graduate school admission. Johns Hopkins Medical School, one of the most acclaimed in the world, seeks applicants who have spent time studying humanities in addition to their pre-med requisites. Required undergraduate coursework includes at least two writing-intensive courses, which can be in the humanities or the social/behavioral sciences. The requirement reads, “It is expected that the student will have demonstrated precise and fluent communication in spoken and written English. It is strongly recommended that the student achieve basic conversational skills in a foreign language.” As medical school requirements emphasize, doctors need to do more than regurgitate information; they need to be communicators, effective writers, and deep thinkers. 

 Ann Gemma, the head of admissions at a local law school, Mitchell Hamline, explains that undergraduate majors don’t make or break law school admission. In fact, students college majors often don’t align with the graduate program they are applying to. In this year’s admission round at Mitchell Hamline, “we saw nursing, film production, biology, business administration, journalism, mathematics, and women’s studies. There were over 65 different majors represented,” Gemma told The Talon. “Legal studies, criminal justice, political science, English, and philosophy can all be a strength in an application. But we have students interested in specific areas of law where other degrees can be helpful. For example, a science and engineering major is required for an applicant who is interested in taking the patent bar exam and practicing patent law, someone with an entrepreneurship or business degree may be a strong applicant for business law, and a background in women’s studies or Native American studies could be very applicable to a focus on civil rights and social justice,” she further explained. 

Conclusions 

 

“I think what’s happening is that colleges are not trying to educate the whole student. They are focused on trying to create the next scientist and forgetting that learning how to think, learning how to read, and dive deeply into topics that humanities include, is just as important. It’s really short sighted…really short sighted,” said Beck.

 

 

 

 

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