Holding Hope for Humanities

Issue 15, Volume 113

By Amaryllis Sun 

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“You won’t survive as an English major. You can always write as a hobby,” my parents told me when I expressed my interest in pursuing English in college. I weighed the options of money versus happiness in my head before agreeing and pushing myself into STEM classes, hoping to attend an elite university where I would pave the path for women in STEM and succeed as the first-generation daughter of immigrant parents who grew up poor and worked relentlessly their entire lives to be able to provide for my brother and me. However, when Advanced Placement (AP) course selections were released, I found myself drifting toward the humanities electives, with Writing to Make Change and Defining American Voices appealing to me more than the STEM electives. Though this was a relatively simple decision, it reflected my constant turmoil over my future career path, whether it be following my heart, which would mean pursuing writing, or following my brain, which reminded me that I wanted to be able to financially provide for myself as soon as possible. Despite it only being sophomore year, several of my friends have already decided which career paths they want to pursue, increasing the stress I put on myself to decide my future. In an environment where the majority of students are mainly interested in STEM classes and end up going into STEM fields, the pathway for a humanities-driven student can seem daunting, especially considering the competitive nature of Stuyvesant. 
The stereotypes surrounding the humanities and STEM are leading to a significant decline in humanities degrees and a rapid increase in STEM degrees, with computer science bachelor degrees rising 74 percent from 2009 to 2015. Even at Stuyvesant, where both the humanities and STEM departments are exceptional, many students underestimate the humanities and give wary glances to those majoring in history or the arts. During our open houses, we proudly showcase our robotics team, science labs, and mathematical achievements as our main accomplishments, pushing humanities to the side. The belief that writing will one day be replaced by artificial intelligence, which is already seen through  the popularity of using ChatGPT to complete writing assignments, pushes hopeful teenagers to explore other, more “practical” interests. The importance of humanities is often ignored, despite it proving just as useful and difficult as STEM. No field is superior to another. Stuyvesant and other educational institutions across the world need to advertise and believe in English and history courses as much as they do in computer science and engineering courses. 
The opinions regarding liberal arts were not always as cautious: initially, they were highly respected. During the Renaissance in the 16th century, the fields of philosophy, art, music, and literature were greatly admired, with individuals such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo being key figures for their artistic contributions to society. Even in the 20th century, literature was valued. “When I was in college in the 1990s and early aughts, the study of literature was not only highly valued, but considered an essential component of other disciplines, namely philosophy, psychology, and law. My professors described literature as a vehicle for understanding human motives and behavior, a discipline that emphasizes critical analysis and reflection, and an art that magnifies the potential of imagination,” English teacher Rosa Mazzurco commented in an e-mail interview. The emphasis on the arts was apparent up until the 21st century, when technology gained traction and the demand for jobs in STEM fields skyrocketed. Since then, humanities have been regarded as less of a necessity. The mission statement of the Stuyvesant High School website is further evidence of the lack of acknowledgment that humanities receive: “The educational heritage of Stuyvesant is deeply rooted in the tradition of Science, Mathematics, and Technology. This has been the foundation of our educational success and must remain the cornerstone of our educational program.” While our educational heritage is important to recognize, education should not be restricted to one field, especially when high school is the time for students to explore their interests. The decline in humanities can be attributed to this confinement and is a sign that schools should provide classes of all fields, no matter the obscurity or unpopularity. Stuyvesant does a great job at providing a wide variety of classes in both the humanities and STEM departments, and yet, the persistence of stereotypes propagating through the hallways continues. 
One common stereotype is that a humanities degree will not have many opportunities post-graduation, rendering the degree useless. As a result of this sentiment, humanities degrees have dropped 30 percent between 2005 and 2020, while STEM degrees have risen 43 percent from 2009 to 2015. Another reason for this heavily contrasting relationship is the high average starting salary that STEM majors tend to have, which most people gravitate towards. This contributes to the stereotype that humanities majors will not be as successful as STEM majors in terms of finance. Though money is an important factor to consider when choosing a career path, society has placed too much emphasis on money over happiness. Considering that 66 percent of people feel emotionally detached from their jobs and 19 percent feel miserable, emotional aspects of one’s life should outweigh economic motivations. Despite making below the median amount that college graduates typically make, humanities majors still accomplish their goals and are more content than other field majors, disproving the myth that humanities majors cannot achieve success after graduation. High school and university educators should debunk these stereotypes and provide the benefits—not just the disadvantages—to their students instead of pushing them into STEM. At Stuyvesant especially, humanities are often overlooked, with students calling it “useless” when pondering their course selections, instead opting for AP Computer Science and AP Calculus BC. The cycle of misinformation will only continue until it is properly addressed; students should not be discouraged from pursuing their passions simply because of what others believe. With this, it is absolutely essential for us to realize and acknowledge that success is not defined by income.
Some believe that the decline of humanities is irreversible and that as long as STEM disciplines pay well, the cycle will persist. Though this may be true—especially considering the role money and opportunities play when pursuing an occupation—liberal arts are essential to gaining a better understanding and appreciation of humankind and society. I am still holding out hope for humanities; I can still be a successful first-generation daughter that earns my parents’ admiration without putting aside writing as merely a hobby.