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In the War Between STEM and Humanities, is Humanities Making a Comeback?

For a long time, the “death of the humanities” seemed imminent. From 2011-2017, the number of degrees awarded by U.S. colleges and universities dropped over 10% in almost every humanities subject while increasing in all STEM subjects.

This emphasis on STEM started in the early 2000s when the U.S. National Academies published a report showing that the U.S. STEM proficiency was significantly lower than other countries’. They warned that future U.S. competitiveness would depend on strong STEM educational programs; STEM would enable the development of critical emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and space technology that would be vital to the future prosperity, security, and health of the U.S. This pushed many schools to adopt STEM initiatives and create pathways for students to go into STEM fields.

The student population also began to perceive that degrees in humanities subjects such as foreign language, art, or history would not help them get a job after college, while STEM degrees were viewed as the path to a lucrative career.

As economic pressures stemming from the 2008 financial crisis led to budget constraints, colleges focused their cuts on the humanities subjects that students had begun to deem irrelevant. In 2009, the University of California, comprising ten campuses at Berkeley, Irvine, and more, lost $813 million in funding; at the Davis campus, 44 courses in the division of humanities, arts, and cultural studies were cut. At the Santa Cruz campus, most general-education courses were cut along with the bachelor of arts degree in earth sciences and the minor in music.

The cuts continue to this day. In 2017, the University of Montana cut its budget by $5 million, laying off 58 faculty members, eliminating global humanities and religion majors, and consolidating 6 different language majors into one major; in 2023, they cut another $2.6 million from the budget of the College of Humanities and Sciences budget.

However, the 2022 school year marked a reversal of the trend. While STEM does indeed bring important skills to the table including technology literacy, entrepreneurship, problem-solving, and acceptance of failure, a good humanities education also teaches crucial skills important for future success such as creativity, communication, relationship building, resilience, and adaptability. At many top universities, more and more students are recognizing this and choosing to study fields such as art history, modern languages, philosophy, and the performing arts. This year, many schools have reported an uptick in the number of humanities majors, with UC Berkeley reporting that the number of students majoring in the Arts and Humanities was up 43.2% compared to five years ago and up 73% compared to ten years ago.

Students are beginning to recognize that the humanities are vital to becoming global citizens who can successfully tackle today’s issues, and majoring in the humanities can still lead to tremendous future success. A recent study at Oxford revealed that studying humanities influenced students’ sense of self, their values, and their social behavior while giving them an edge in the job market and above-average financial returns. Doug Freeman, who obtained a B.A. in English, leveraged the skills he had learned to help Patagonia become a leader in using environmentally-friendly materials in his eight years as COO.

For too long, the humanities have been undervalued and under-resourced in the U.S., as STEM has dominated the educational landscape. However, the reported turnaround in the number of humanities majors at many colleges coupled with more U.S. government focus on the humanities - President Biden just issued an executive order to promote the arts, humanities, libraries, and museums - suggests that the tide is turning. These developments reflect a growing appreciation and recognition of the role humanities plays in enriching our society and culture, especially in challenging times like the COVID pandemic. Furthermore, they signal a shift toward a more interdisciplinary approach to education, where STEM and humanities are not separated from each other, but rather combined with each other to generate new ideas and to tackle complex problems and challenges.

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