Two students go head-to-head in why they made their subject choices, and the pros and cons of choosing either humanities or sciences.
Well, I chose not to STEM. For those who are unaware, the acronym stands for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics” – the subjects of apparent growing import in the 21st century. I have a little disclaimer to begin with: I’m an english literature student who is also reading classics; one couldn’t have chosen subjects that embody the humanities more. I’m also very proud that the title of this article alludes to perhaps the most famous Shakespearean phrase of all time, “To be, or not to be”, spoken in Hamlet by the eponymous protagonist, which is, for me, vindication enough for choosing the “dark side”. Nevertheless, the sheer significance of STEM subjects in recent years and the way in which they have increasingly shaped our modern education system to the extent that I (stalwart literary man that I am) should notice, very much means that this particular grouping of subjects is really worth looking into.
“I have a little disclaimer to begin with: I’m an English literature student who is also reading classics; one couldn’t have chosen subjects that embody the humanities more…”
There can be no doubt about the utter importance of STEM subjects in the wider world. Indeed, a report compiled by the University of Birmingham in 2018 discussing the benefits of a STEM education in many third-world countries notes that these subjects “could resolve unemployment problems” and that “the supply of skilled workers for social professions can be boosted through STEM education”, as well as contributing to “provid[ing] the skills for self-employment and entrepreneurship”.
For the University of Glasgow in particular, STEM subjects have had a long and rich history. Indeed, moving away from the traditionally classical education embedded in educational institutions since the mediaeval era, John Anderson, a professor of natural philosophy at the University of Glasgow, instructed in his will that an institution be set up for the teaching of more practical, vocational, and scientific subjects. This is the Andersonian Institute, which eventually became what is now the University of Strathclyde. Moreover, the University of Glasgow is described by The Times’ Higher Education World University Rankings as having “research excellence… in areas such as precision medicine and chronic diseases” as well as the “nano and quantum world”. Therefore, the University’s research performance in, and academic output for, STEM subjects is evidently of paramount importance to its “World Changing” ethos and remain especially critical given COP26 commenced in Glasgow last November, and as the University looks towards its goal of ensuring that it becomes entirely carbon neutral by 2030.
“The University’s research performance in, and academic output for, STEM subjects is evidently of paramount importance to its “World Changing” ethos and remains especially critical given COP26 commenced in Glasgow last November…”
An advantage often heard about pursuing the humanities is that its broad scope opens many doors for the future. However, this is, I feel, becoming increasingly true for STEM subjects too. I believe that STEM subjects, such as engineering, are generally often associated with long and arduous degrees followed by a career solely dedicated to a certain niche within their subject field. On the contrary, in a lecture given by a QC about the legal profession while I was in secondary school, I was told that the bar and many prestigious law firms in London seek out those who have read STEM subjects, particularly mathematics, as it is believed that they lend a different perspective to those pursuing the law. Therefore, when all is said and done, and despite my steep and profound bias towards the humanities, I suppose I should be happy at this new and ever growing renaissance of STEM – though, for many, the decision of whether or not to take up these subjects continues to remain the abiding question.
Alright, let’s make this interesting. In response to my colleague who, despite his own lack of involvement with STEM, praises the ever-growing importance and flexibility of choosing to STEM, I, as a neuroscience major who very much does study STEM, will try to cover the importance of choosing, instead, not to STEM. Naturally, in order to write this article I began with a bit of research – spelling out “importance of humanities” into the search bar of my trusted database. While I was expecting to find numerous research papers supporting this statement, with discussion sections raving about the connections between humanities graduates and employability, transferable skills, excellent critical thinking scores or contributions to other fields, instead I received an error message. Twice. Which, I must admit, made me let out a short silent sinister laugh of satisfaction.
Questioning whether humanities are still an essential field in academia is not a new phenomenon. In a world revolving around innovation and progress, studying works about individuals and by individuals who have been long gone – and therefore seemingly do not have any direct connections to the current state of affairs – may appear to many as a waste of time and resources. However, I do believe that the unique skill set which can be obtained through immersing oneself in extensive works on the many facets of the human experience is one we now need more than ever.
“Questioning whether humanities are still an essential field in academia is not a new phenomenon…”
According to Dr. Rich from Grace College, Indiana, humanities are “foundational to both democratic society and to a life of purpose, virtue, and fulfilment”. Humanities support the development of skills such as critical assessment of text and other media, critical thinking, strong argumentation, but also the ability to assess and hold opposing ideas in one’s perspective, to invite plurality of views, and to understand the value of multiple angles on the same matter. It also facilitates interactions with different perspectives – be it cultural, philosophical, social, or linguistic. Unfortunately, many of these skills are not being taught well or at all in lower levels of education and are currently becoming a scarce resource in our society. The results of this scarcity are growing more and more tangible with soaring rates of hate crimes, radicalisation of the political scene, rise of populism and spread of conspiracy theories, just to name a few, as these are a direct reflection of personal views of growing portion of our society and thus unfortunately those in leading positions as well.
Technical and scientific progress can only help our society so much if we do not ensure that everyone and anyone will be given the opportunity to profit equally. If we omit to assess the global impacts and interplays between individual groups, backlash is inevitable.
Not least importantly, we must also ask, what is education truly for? To supply an endless resource of labour, a drive for continuous race for progress, or to support development of well-rounded humans capable of navigating the world, critically assessing their options and fully using available resources? I believe that humanities, although heterogenous in their form, are unified in their positive impacts on both the individual who chose them and the society which values their contributions.