STEM vs Humanities: Who Wins?


#1

I’m conflicted as to which I should pick. Can anyone share with me the merits of both? Which would have a larger impact in terms of job opportunities? Why is it that those within STEM seem to look down, or think they are superior, to those who have/are pursuing Humanities?

Just interested in your general thoughts about this topic. I know there’s a lot to cover, so please, I’d love a good discussion.


#2

Fantastic question, anonymous. I’m sure it’ll stir up quite the debate. Let me share my two cents!

The world NEEDS humanities majors. Quite frankly, the very pillars of humanity as we know it today, were derived off philosophical thought. Even early figures who rightfully would fit within the realm of “STEM” today, had humanities engrained in their foundations. Take Galileo for example, in addition to being a physicist, engineer, astronomer and mathematician - he was a PHILOSOPHER!

Other philosophers whom have backgrounds in science are Descartes, Francis Bacon, Aristotle, Karl Popper, Isaac Newton et cetera, et cetera.

The Current Climate: Increase Funding and Exposure in STEM

Currently, those in the Humanities are feeling displaced within the academic community; having difficulty around getting broader social recognition. With the tech industry increasing rapidly - STEM’s becoming the norm - naively so, people are turning their heads to subjects within the Humanities: our historians and philosophers, literary critics, classicists, performers, politicians, don’t they deserve credit?

In the US, you have had many government officials denouncing humanities based subjects and expressing their support for STEM: Kentucky governor Matt Bevin wants engineering students to receive subsidies, but doesn’t want to support those studying the likes of french literature (ironic viewpoint, because he himself graduated with a BA in East Asian studies); Marco Rubio declared for more welders and fewer philosophers; Politicians in Texas have proposed that liberal arts students should expect to pay full fees and more, with no suspicion of subsidy, compared to their STEM counterparts.

The argument? That such learning is self-indulgent and provides little to no value to society. That pursuing a liberal arts education is more of a luxury for those that can afford it, implying that you can’t make money from it / it’s wasteful.

The Need For Humanities Within Our Society

Personally, I don’t think one can just denounce an entire specialisation and state that there is no use.

Steve Jobs once said:

“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough - that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Steve Jobs, who reigned for decades as a tech hero, was neither a coder nor a hardware engineer. He stood out among the tech elite because he brought an artistic sensibility to the redesign of clunky mobile phones and desktop computers.

There is a clear link between innovation and the liberal arts - of which, the latter propels the former forward, to new heights. Being able to entwine critical thinking, persuasive communication skills, and solve tough problems - objectives and outcomes of any liberal arts/humanities major - that will be transferable to any profession, even STEM.

I think those who are able to marry the two together: STEM and Humanities. They will reap the benefits. It should not be an argument of one or the other, it should be about both.


#3

My guess is that it takes a much higher IQ to solve problems in the STEM fields than to solve those in humanities. We more greatly respect Einstein, for his discoveries in physics than we respect [insert random famous sociologist here] for their work in the field of [insert random sub field of sociology here]. High IQ’s impress us, and hence those with high IQ’s can look down upon those who don’t have high IQ’s.

Also, and this is totally up to debate, the applications of STEM accomplishments of modern times have been much more useful for humankind than have been the application of accomplishments in humanities fields. As an example, you being able to enjoy and learn from this platform comes about most importantly from the contributions and efforts of computer scientists, software engineers, and mathematicians. What you may learn from a sociologist’s essay about the effects of gender discretion on a regions GDP, are probably somewhat less directly interesting or applicable to you.

Or even more importantly, you probably have to thank the biologists and doctors who vaccinated you when you were a baby, more than you have to thank the anthropologist who was merely observing the development of viruses and their effect on humankind. I could go on but I’m sure you get the point.

Furthermore, if we just look at one’s “college experience”. Their opinion is typically cultivated in that environment. STEM majors end up despising (or being envious) of their academic counterparts pursuing a humanities major. Why? STEM majors are typically more time-intensive and intense, they need to go through rigorous background checks in mathematics or the fundamentals of their topics of study before they can begin to do real understanding of any advanced topics. This is in contrast to non-stem fields where you can understand theories far quicker, ultimately, they seem less complex.

This of course is a very biased perspective, heavily sided to STEM.


#4

Even as someone who chose to study a STEM subject, I completely agree with anonymous78. I chose microbiology because I found it a massively interesting and currently relevant subject, where knowledge in the field is advancing rapidly; and I think a lot of people who choose STEM may also do so because of a perceived greater relevance in the modern world. I learn about microbial systems and have the opportunity to contribute to novel research in a medically important field, but also have little opportunity for critical or persuasive writing and creativity. I think the analytical and creative skills developed in a humanities degree are invaluable for the dissemination of knowledge, and unfortunately the biggest increases in knowledge currently are coming from STEM.

I agree with Briar in that STEM students may look down on those in the humanities because of the time-intensive nature of a STEM degree. I have double the hours in class/ labs compared with humanities students at the same uni (because of this, you’re getting more for your money from a STEM degree). There’s also a perception that if you’re forming opinions/ writing critically then less work is required than if you are solving problems/ writing a lab report.

I think that whichever you choose, having more people maintaining an interest in both science and humanities throughout their degrees may help bridge the ever growing divide between the two. I think there is a current trend with many employers preferring graduates of science degrees, but a degree is obviously just one aspect of a job application, and if you know the sector you wish to enter, gaining relevant work exp. will likely play a larger role in securing job opportunities.

If you’re still feeling conflicted, I would really try and do a joint honours, but if not, and if you have no content preference, the way you learn and the skills you refine the most will be the biggest differences.


#5

STEM? Who needs STEM?

STEAM is where it’s at.


#6

I was certainly what you’d call a “humanities kid.” Geography, media studies, business studies - I loved them.

People often ask me why I didn’t take sciences in my final years of schooling - I was bright, so, like, I should have taken some sciences, right? And I was good at them too until Year 11 when I dropped them all. But I feel like social stigma made me do this, and I wish I’d had a teacher say to me “just take one” because it’s true that the concepts and structures you learn in the sciences (and maths) are often harder than those in the humanities, and they teach you good study habits if you want the top marks. But I dropped the sciences for a very sad reason - I didn’t want to be a doctor. All my friends took the sciences because they wanted to go off to med school, and that’s what you had to do. I didn’t want to be a doctor, so what was the point in taking a science? I could take an easier subject (easier for me) and get the same NCEA credits, so why put myself through the stress of a science with students who were there because they had to be for med school?

Looking back, I realise how TERRIBLE this is, and how I’m so pleased there is so much emphasis now on doing sciences for the skills they give you, not just for the university pathway.

But equally, the humanities need their moment too. Unlike the sciences, the humanities teach you to think critically about what you’re learning and encourage you to look at different viewpoints. I think students who only take the sciences REALLY lack this. Badly. I have marked some shocking university assignments, with poor grammar and sentence structure and a lack of thoughts, and I believe that sciences can teach students that “this is how its done” so they lose all sense of how to challenge a thought or idea.

I totally agree that STEAM needs more focus - arts is critical in education. But I hope that kids don’t think they now have to pick a category - either STEAM or humanities - when looking at their subjects, because as mentioned in earlier posts, some of the best minds have had backgrounds in both.


#7

Humanities majors are always citing anecdotal evidence, but empirical evidence demonstrates that STEM majors have lower unemployment and higher starting salaries. What’s more, these unemployment rates and starting salaries are rather uniform from school to school, whereas in the humanities, your undergrad alma mater matters a LOT. An English major from Harvard is in a whole other world than an English major from South Dakota State University, but an engineer from SDSU can expect good employment prospects.

Don’t get mad at me, I’m just the bearer of bad news. The culture has changed and people now believe that college is to prepare you for a career, and humanities majors (except for those from rigorous, highly-ranked programs) don’t really prepare you for careers. They aren’t supposed to. So this is one reason why people often sneer at humanities majors. I mainly sneer at the humanities because of how soft and watered down it has become. It is incredibly easy to get a degree in English or another similar humanities domain.

For all of the talk about humanities degrees teaching people how to write and communicate well, I have not observed above-average communications skills in the humanities than those who pursued STEM. For all of the talk of humanities degrees teaching you to think critically, I haven’t seen this either. Rare exceptions like graduates of rigorous economic and philosophy programs are, as I said, rare exceptions.

And this won’t make me any more popular but I’ll leave it here for people to pick over: a lot of STEM majors believe that our salaries will one day pay for the welfare/medicare/medicaid/social security/disability/student loan defaults of humanities majors who don’t get jobs. People don’t talk about this in “mixed company,” if you know what I mean.


#8

I’m another humanities kid who also slightly regrets she didn’t keep doing one or two sciences. I took physics and chemistry in year 12 NCEA but dropped them when I decided I was going to do law after finishing school. I was much better at the humanities than the sciences, which probably distorted my viewpoint a bit.

My perspective on the STEM v humanities debate is neither is better than the other. Cognitive Intelligence is not a zero sum game based only on IQ. Perhaps STEM majors have higher IQs. Perhaps they don’t. I personally think that what is needed right now in the current job market is a MULTIDISCIPLINARY approach to education.

As the Steve Jobs example demonstrates, humanities specialists have a lot to bring to the table. Critical thinking skills, an understanding of people and societies and creativity in solving problems. Likewise STEM specialists also have a lot to contribute. They have specific skills in areas needed to build or change things, coding, engineering etc. Both need to be equally recognised because both are valuable in their own way.

From my experience, one of the best collaborative partnerships I’ve worked in, involved me and a more STEM focussed person. We’ve found that our different approaches to thinking about situations enables us to think more broadly when initiating projects and solving problems. He is more analytical of finer details, and more logical about financial and procedural considerations. I tend to base some
of my analysis on a more instinctive understanding of how people will react to a new problem, idea or situation. Together we are able to consider the whole picture - and along the way, to push each other to improve as thinkers and doers.

STEM and humanities are more effective when they work together. Sure, pick your camp if you want to- but remain open: the other side has a lot to offer. By broadening your course of study to include subjects you wouldn’t normally take, you examine your own way of thinking and experience new challenges.


#9

I’m definitely more of a STEM student (as will probably be reflected in my answer), so I’ll provide my perspective on the question.

Firstly, I think limiting yourself to one or the other early on is a bad idea. I very nearly did this and am so happy that I didn’t. Despite loving the analytical thinking and problem solving required in Maths and Science, you miss out on a whole dimension of education that the humanities provide. This includes communication skills, critical thinking, creativity, understanding contrasting points of view etc. I did Social Studies up to year 12 and English and Economics up to year 13 and I’m so happy that I did because without it my communication skills would not be at the level they currently are. Despite not particularly enjoying English at high school, I feel like it helped round out my education.

Having said that, I feel like STEM offers you the most opportunity to directly contribute and add value to society and this is reflected in the remuneration available in STEM careers. However without the balance provided by the humanities, you risk lacking understanding of people and how to interact with them well.

One way I like to think of it is that STEM allows us to improve people’s quality of life, whereas the humanities allow us to improve as people.