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The Culture War of STEM and Humanities

Staff writer Rena Hoshino evaluates the value placed on STEM and humanities fields across time, and how it can exist going forward. 

From our curriculum to the development of new sciences and technology, we always seem to be directed towards STEM, the field that looks towards the future, and ushered away from the arts and humanities. Socially, this binary between STEM and humanities is present as well: peoples’ reactions to someone doing a humanities degree is vastly different from their reactions to someone doing a STEM degree.

This could be rooted in the fact that STEM is seen as more valuable by the job market – those in STEM tend to achieve higher paying jobs, their qualifications seen as both valuable and more mentally challenging. In 2021, UCAS said that more young people were taking the path towards STEM, which the government website dubs “good news, especially as STEM subjects have a positive impact on the economy and society.” They explicitly place value on them in accordance with their economic contributions.

This relative value placed on STEM compared to humanities is not a dynamic that has been constant through history. Though it would be too elaborate to expand on all the changes the two fields have undergone, it’s important to note that the two have not always been pitted against one another.

Before our modern conception of literature and philosophy, the humanities were included in ‘High Culture’, a term that dubbed it a significant cultural area exclusive to the high class. Consumption and access to the arts and humanities became a way to show status and wealth, and when lower class people were able to do the same, it facilitated upwards mobility. The latter half of the 20th century then provided a significant portion of the transition from humanities towards STEM fields. There were developments technologically in the railway, electricity, and communications, and further advancements in intellectual sciences such as Einstein’s theories. An emphasis on our connection to nature and expressions of this through art, philosophy, literature, began to take more of a backseat as the need to look forward in a post-world war climate became stronger.

The two subsequently being placed in the binary of humanities and STEM has forced one to take an inferior position. This is in line with the concept of dichotomies being created to enforce ideals of hierarchical knowledge and positions, and could be associated with the gender divide between the two – women tend to be more involved in the humanities field and vice versa for men. In fact, the colloquial “women in STEM” phrase refers to how being a woman in STEM contains an implicit understanding that their environment and the field’s history is male-dominated.

Additionally, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten point to there being an institutionally defined “enlightenment” which has led to more focus on the way different degrees in fields are judged and sold to budding university applicants, which, among other factors, focuses on the career paths of their graduates and the wages they obtain as a high standard of success and value.

Despite this narrow definition of success deeming one better than the other, a report by the British Academy in 2020 shows that Arts and Humanities degree holders are equally as employable as STEM degree holders, often being more flexible in their ability to switch jobs because of their transferable skills. When we look at what both produce in terms of our society and culture, they have important impacts that speak to different but equally essential parts of our lives. STEM leads to new methods of medicine to treat our maladies, and products which enable new solutions to age-old problems such as natural disasters. Arts and humanities are the foundations of film, books, music, and self-expression that are deeply ingrained in our connections to one another and present radical ways to theorise. Moreover, they can do more than co-exist – they can co-operate: as AI evolves, the ethics of managing and developing them is instrumental to their integration, the coding of a video game paired with its visual and audio design make for award-winning results, and new technological products require an understanding of human behaviour to win the market.

Ultimately, STEM and humanities will offer you skills and knowledge in something that can’t be accessed in the other field, and both have the capacity to create incredible change in the world around us. You shouldn’t have to seek validation for the path you’ve chosen from ignorant relatives or peers.

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