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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Stem the STEM Tide

When I first started college, I pursued a major in acting, a degree choice that was accepted by my liberal, teen-of-the-60's mother and greeted with no small amount of eye-rolling by any number of friends and well-wishers: What, exactly, did I think I was going to do with a degree in acting?.  I suppose on some level I, too, asked myself that question and came up with an unsatisfactory answer because, midway through my sophomore year I switched my major from the dramatic arts to the more socially acceptable English, with a soupcon of education-training thrown in.  Strangely enough, this was seen as a rational move, a practical step down the road to responsible adulthood.

Nowadays, though, such a change of major would elicit so much eye-rolling as to strain the optic nerves: Not only would a switch from drama to English be seen as, at best, a lateral move on the continuum of frivolity, but I would also be condemned for wasting my time and money on the inevitable inefficiencies of transferring.  Nowadays, if a student goes to college intending to study anything less obviously practical than, say, applied nuclear physics, he risks incurring the wrath of parents and society alike.  English--a major once so respectable as to inspire musical-theater balladry--is now just another academic dead-end.

Colleges have begun to take notice.  At Stanford and Harvard and any number of other bastions of higher education, administrators look on with concern as the enrollments in once proud humanities departments continue to shrink.  While the trend didn't start with the global economic meltdown, the recession has seemingly channeled ever-greater number of students into the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math)--these seeming to offer students greater chances of gainful employment upon graduation.  Why, the thinking goes, would anyone waste four-plus years and potentially tens of thousands of dollars on a degree in something as squishy as English?

I have to admit, I find myself on the defensive when confronting the question, "What good is an English degree?"  I mean, there is something apparently self-indulgent about spending years reading and discussing good books when one could spend those same years learning how to splice a nucleotide to a particle accelerator.  Or whatever it is that science people do.  Then again, maybe nucleotide-splicing is just as self-indulgent in its way, as the people who major in science probably enjoy lab work just as much as English majors enjoy books.

Or at least, they probably did, back in the days when not everyone felt compelled to major in "practical" fields whether they wanted to or not.  Which I think is an important point: Do we have more STEM majors because people want to major in STEM fields or simply because people think that only by majoring in these fields will they be able to find work?  And if the reason is the latter, then won't they be disappointed when they graduate and find themselves having to compete with a multitude of other graduates for what will still be a limited number of positions?  And won't the ones who get the best jobs still be the ones whose enthusiasm for the subject has led them to achieve at the highest levels--the ones who probably would have gone into the sciences anyway?

Humanities majors may not be as well-versed in the workings of the atom or the proper way to run an economy as those who pursue more scientific fields.  But those who study English or philosophy or music or, yes, drama develop valuable skills nonetheless--communication skills, writing skills, those oft-mentioned critical thinking skills that everyone values so highly.  Not everyone, frankly, is cut out for scientific careers--I'm certainly not--so why shouldn't students follow their passions to find something at which they can excel?  The jobs will come.  For what it's worth, while most of my fellow drama majors may not have achieved Broadway superstardom or landed lucrative multi-picture deals, they have pretty much all gone on to successful careers in any number of fields.  Who could argue with that?

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