Why we still need to study the humanities in an increasingly STEM-dominated post-secondary world

Photo by Darien Funk

The dichotomy between science and humanities in terms of use when it comes to post-secondary degrees has long been debated. 

It is a common misconception that degrees in areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are more valuable than those based in the arts and humanities. 

Some might say this criticism comes from the notion that STEM subjects prepare students more for direct workplace-related scenarios, neglecting the fact that humanities provide exceptionally important and applicable skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving.

Unfortunately, impressions such as these are present in our very own community at Wilfrid Laurier University. 

As a humanities major myself, I often engage in debates with many of my peers when it comes to determining the value of one discipline in contrast to another, based on the presumed use of the degree. 

Some may look at my progression as a Bachelor of Arts double-degree student in comparison to a Bachelor’s of Business Administration student and conclude that my degree provides little to no opportunities after graduation, while the BBA student has a variety of options and employers jumping at the chance to hire them. 

However, while one can certainly not deny the value of completing education in a subject that is directly related to a field of work, we cannot underestimate the importance of what can be learned through the humanities.  

The purpose of this article is not to take one position over another, but rather, to highlight the importance of both areas of study. 

If STEM subjects can, for arguments’ sake, be understood as the “‘how’” question (i.e. how it works), then the humanities must subsequently be perceived as the “‘why’” question (i.e. why something works). 

This is to say that STEM allows us to engage in a deeper understanding of how many different aspects of the world function, such as: How does the central nervous system work? How does gravity work? How do we create buildings? How do we stop COVID-19? 

On the other hand, the humanities allow us to understand why all this is both necessary and possible. Questions explored here pertain closer to things such as: What caused certain historical events to take place? What were the repercussions? How do economies develop? 

These subjects demonstrate deeper insight into the human condition, all the while providing practical real-life working skills such as communication, critical thinking, empathy, problem-solving and countless others.  

A traditionally liberal arts education — one that incorporates an equally- weighted focus on subjects in STEM, arts and humanities — may be seen as the most beneficial to the education of individuals. 

In this way, Students would gain a cohesive collection of understandings regarding a variety of different disciplines. This might also allow students to determine which areas of study they truly are better suited for. 

If students have the opportunity to develop their skills in multiple subjects, they have a better chance of finding one to excel in. This is very explanatory of the value of subjects as well. Similarly to how one subject is not inherently more challenging than another, a person in one discipline should not be perceived as smarter than someone not in that particular discipline. 

The truth of the matter is that different minds were built for different things. Some people’s brains are made to excel in the sciences or math while others are truly gifted in topics such as literature or history. 

It takes different people to master different skills, and this diversity should be reflected in the importance of different degrees. It is this variety that allows students to expand their skill sets and truly be better prepared for the workforce and life in general. 

We cannot simply have how without why, nor should we attempt why without how. 

STEM and the humanities should not be competing for dominance, but rather be reworked to be integrated into all areas of education so that, as students, we may benefit from all aspects that each discipline may have to offer. 

Thus, we must perceive not only the degrees, but the individuals who obtained them, as equally as demanding and important to the function of society as each other. 

It is not the case that the humanities and arts should be valued above STEM, or vice versa;, simply, different subjects are suited to different aspects of working life, as are different minds better suited for different subjects. 

We are not inherently better than each other and our degrees do not determine any sort of standing. We are all simply individuals who are each independently capable of different things at varying degrees of success.

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