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April 16, 2024

The humanities are being neglected in American universities

By NEIL MAHTO | March 14, 2024



Mahto argues that the value of the humanities is under-emphasized at universities in comparison with STEM. 

Are the humanities undervalued in college? Yes, without a doubt. 

I’ve seen too many news articles about the most regretted college majors” or, even more egregious, “most useless college majors.” The first article, by CNBC, has journalism, communications, sociology and education as four of the most regretted college majors. The latter article lists the most typical humanities majors, such as English and philosophy, as “useless,” implying that students should ditch the arts for higher-paying STEM fields. Articles like this are, in my opinion, intellectually dishonest and knowingly perpetuate capitalist propaganda. The jaw-dropping part is that a journalist wrote an article telling college students not to major in journalism. 

The notion that the humanities are inherently less valuable than STEM has pushed students away from studying societally important subjects. While a sizable number of students continue to study the humanities, the number of humanities degrees awarded drops every year, dropping nearly 25% from 2012 to 2020. This decline of the humanities could deeply hurt academia and society as a whole.

One of the most beautiful quotes from the Dead Poets Society has truth to it but is wrong: “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love are what we stay alive for.” While the purpose of STEM is to improve the material conditions of the human race, from new drugs to faster computers, STEM does not exist without the humanities. Therefore, you can’t say STEM sustains life while the humanities are what we stay alive for; the two are inherently connected. 

The humanities are not hobbies. They are critical pursuits that have shaped the world we know today. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity? Inspired by philosopher David Hume. Quantum mechanics? First imagined by writer Jorge Luis Borges. Medicine? Influenced by Hippocrates, a famous Greek philosopher. The earliest scientists, like Isaac Newton, were deemed “natural philosophers.” Their creativity in their fields came from their understanding of the humanities.

However, sometime in the 19th century, around the same time capitalism became the predominant global economic system, science and philosophy began to split, and at the beginning of the 21st century, the humanities and STEM had an ocean between them. While I don’t mean to conflate correlation with causation, physics, the most fundamental science, has remained largely stagnant since Einstein and has had no serious developments in the last 40 years. No disease has been fully eradicated except for smallpox, whose vaccine was discovered by Edward Jenner in 1796. Edward Jenner and Einstein’s influences can both be traced back to early philosophers, and they themselves employed philosophy in their discoveries. 

Clearly, STEM is more than throwing integrals at societal problems and has a deep connection to the humanities. Why, then, did they split? There are various opinions about this. Stephen Hawking said, “Philosophy is dead,” implying that the sciences have become so vast that they have eliminated our need for philosophy. I believe this to be reductive and the issue to be much more nuanced than this. 

Rather, capitalism has caused the humanities to become undervalued and split from more profitable STEM fields. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, capitalism’s Rosetta Stone, called for a division of labor and stated that material conditions would be optimized if workers hyperspecialized their tasks. Around the same time that capitalism took hold of the world’s economy, academia became much more specialized. In the following century, universities also became more pre-professional as society became a material race. Swim or sink. 

Capitalism also arbitrarily assigns value to certain tasks by awarding more or less money. Because STEM happens to directly dominate production and consumerism (think big tech and car companies), STEM fields became well compensated. Humanities vocations, many of which do not directly feed into capitalist structures, are thereby compensated poorly. Even STEM fields that do not fit cleanly into profit motives have been monetized. Doctors serve the interests of pharmaceutical companies and physics researchers spend more time fighting for grant money, something that often contributes to their salary, than doing actual research. 

Above all, the world could not function without English, journalism, sociology and other humanities majors. These disciplines are not only useful to STEM students but are valuable majors in themselves. Journalists keep politicians accountable. English majors write our novels. Sociology majors glean the injustices in society. I could go on. I encourage more STEM students to dabble in the humanities if they can or even double major because they will find that their careers and their pursuits will be amplified. The humanities are a critical part of academics and they cannot be neglected. 

Neil Mahto is a freshman from Albuquerque, N.M., studying Chemistry and English. 

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