I’m sick of hearing about the “STEM Crisis” in America. Read any report on American education from the past decade, and you’ll see an excessive amount of hand-wringing over the fact that American students are failing to engage fully with the new gods of our modern era: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. According to a recent study, America is 27th in the world in math, and 20th in science. ~gasp~

Aside from the fact that grooming all of us young Americans into great Astronauts and Airplane-Builders feels like a remnant of the Cold War Space Race, and aside from all the American exceptionalism that underlies this assumption that we, as a country, should be the best in Science/Technology/Engineering/Math, I take issue with the fact that this emphasis on STEM is making the humanities an afterthought in American education, and that people think you can’t get a job without a STEM major, when, in fact, only half of STEM graduates actually find STEM jobs.

The US Department of Education has done some damage control to assuage the type of rage I’ve displayed above. They assert that liberal arts style education is still relevant. They also continue to push the STEM agenda with programs like Educate to Innovate!

I do not have a STEM degree. I am pursuing an English degree at a liberal arts college. (Quoth the haters: “How useless!” “What are you going to do with that degree? Write? Teach?”)

But I wasn’t always this way.

I’m decent at math and science, and I started out my college career as a Computer Science major, before I decided to opt out of it (I still got a minor). I had a choice between a STEM path and a Humanities one. I chose the humanities, and I don’t regret it at all.

By choosing my English major, I was able to study abroad in Glasgow, UK. With my program of study there, I read Scottish literature in the place where it was written. By reading ancient and modern Scottish texts, I developed a deep understanding of the historical precedence for the Independence Referendum Scotland was voting on at the time. Literature, as much as anything else, helped me gain a sense of Glasgow. I don’t think learning about the Fibonacci Search Technique would have done the same.

Ultimately, I decided to pursue my studies of English over Computer Science because I believe reading, responding to, and creating literature makes me a better person who’s better able to empathize with those around me, and who’s better able to zero in on the heart of any issue presented to me. There’s actually science to back this up.

I preferred my humanities classes at college to my STEM ones because we had discussions in my literature and workshop classes. We debated and created knowledge and opinions about the ideas in our readings and our writings. On the other end of the spectrum, I took a linear algebra class where I was forced to memorize theories and interpret numbers with a narrow matrix-centric lens.


I’m going a little too far. Some math needs to be broken up into bite size, matrixy pieces to make sense. And, at its best, computer science is a highly creative field. What it came down to was that, in English classes, I felt like I was becoming a better citizen of the real (not binary) world. And that’s more important to me than making scientific breakthroughs (although I sincerely hope all people don’t feel this way — we need that cancer cure now).

The STEM jobs just aren’t out there for the picking. And technical or narrowly focused education might not be the best preparation for careers in general — not just STEM careers. According to this report by the Harvard/MIT research pairing of Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane, nowadays, “the fastest growing occupations involv[e] unstructured problem-solving, working with new information, and non-routine physical activity.” Levy and Murnane also say that the increase in “computerized work” has increased the baseline literacy level needed to be a successful worker.

My study of English definitely helped up my literacy. But, in a more general sense, two of these three skills needed for modern work — ”unstructured problem-solving,” and “working with new information” — are definitely not STEM or humanities specific. My psychoanalytic, feminist analysis of The Country of the Pointed Firs helped me develop these skills just as much as implementing a novel approach to titrating acids (or whatever chemistry majors do).

The “soft” skills gained from a humanities-focused or liberal arts education can be just as valuable as “hard” STEM skills in making productive members of society — in teaching people how to run governments and start companies and build buildings and, yes, write and teach.

Just look at me: I got paid to write this blog post. 🙂

And don’t just listen to me: the speakers on this episode of the TED Radio Hour make some great points about how critical thinking is more important than ever in the age of big data.

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  1. Justin Roth

    I was a double major in International Relations and Computer Science. I had the opposite experience of yours. In high school English was my favorite subject. When I came to college I left every humanities course feeling like cluttered my brain with information that couldn’t be used to construct anything of tangible value. I wanted to be creative, expressive, and build solutions to problems in any industry. I tried CS, loved it, and completed a second major. Im currently on the early stages of my career. I wake up excited about my job every day, live comfortably, and enjoy my favorite hobbies outside of work. Here’s what I concluded from my experience:

    Communication skills, open-ended problem solving, teamwork, empathy, and contextual understanding are essential for any job in today’s labor market. Humanities courses cultivate those skills.

    But a four year humanities degree isn’t necessary to develop those skills for employment. I wish I hadn’t done IR as one of my majors, because it didn’t sharpen those skills any more than the distribution requirements of a liberal arts college.

    If you choose a major that makes you happy and are willing to pay extraordinary amounts of money for that degree, go for it. In any field no one is going to hand you a job once you graduate.

    However, I would caution anyone that education is an HUGE investment of time and money. Full stop. You should be very aware of the returns on that investment. Someone has to foot the bill for it, no matter how it is funded. And whether it’s you, a parent, a donor, a foundation, it is a ton of someone’s hard earned money that they spent years saving for an education.

    The returns on an investment in education are abstract – could mean contentment and lifelong intellectual curiosity, could also mean ability to financially support a particular lifestyle. Many students who are young and completing school perceive short term contentment as lifelong. I think most don’t understand how difficult it can be to support yourself in a capitalist society for the rest of your life.

    The dreaded “what are you going to do with that degree” is a rational question. You invested years of your life and thousands upon thousands of someone’s money into getting a sheet of paper that someone will use in part to assess your qualification for employment. Your answer should reflect that it was a thoughtful and deliberate effort towards supporting yourself both financially and intellectually.

    In terms of personal value, no one can tell anyone else how degrees compare. In terms of economic value, it’s pretty easy to look on salary reporting sites and see the average income for a position you might be qualified for with your degree. The two concerns are distinct, and often there’s a disparity where a degree with high personal value to an individual doesn’t have comparable value to employers.

    You shouldn’t choose a degree for the money if you aren’t passionate, or a degree your passionate about that won’t help you make money. There has to be a balance, otherwise you’ll burn out.

    In the end your degree doesn’t determine what you do for your career, but some are less likely to do you any favors when your looking into break into the job market. I think that’s the sentiment that a lot of people voice – concern that someone’s degree doesn’t provide skills that are sought after in a variety of today’s professions.

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