STEM vs Humanities: Finding the Right Balance

The STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) versus humanities conflict is ever-present at Stuyvesant.

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By Aishwarjya Barua

The first thing that comes to many people’s minds when they hear the word “Stuyvesant” is a school filled with students who are obsessed with their STEM classes. Though Stuyvesant has upheld a reputation for having strong STEM departments and successful graduates working in STEM fields since its founding, the humanities departments at Stuyvesant are equally strong and allow students to receive a well-rounded education that is not exclusively STEM-based.

In this respect, there are a plethora of elective options offered at Stuyvesant in both STEM and humanities. In the STEM fields, underclassmen are able to take electives ranging from Math Team to Genetics Research. They are also able to take honors math or test into other higher-level math classes. In the humanities field, freshmen and sophomores can take history classes including Advanced Placement (AP) Human Geography and AP European History. However, freshmen and sophomores are not permitted to take any English electives, and their core English classes are mandated.

Stuyvesant’s core identity revolves around advancing and challenging students. However, many feel that those ideas are consistent only with STEM classes, neglecting the importance of the humanities. Senior William Zeng said, “Stuy certainly lives up to its reputation as a STEM school. We have so many STEM electives geared [toward] subjects such as engineering, science, and technology, hence [the] classes such as AutoCAD and architecture.”

When discussing the humanities options available to students, sophomore Jerry Liang said, “Stuyvesant has a large group of humanities students and an even larger group of students who don’t identify as such but enjoy the occasional book or the creativity that writing offers.” Regardless of the school’s reputation, “students should have the ability to pursue their interests, whether that be in STEM or in the humanities,” Liang continued.

During their freshman and sophomore years, students are required to take the Freshman Composition and European Literature courses. “Freshman year’s principle is writing instruction,” Assistant Principal of English Eric Grossman said. “Students come from so many different middle school backgrounds that we felt and still feel it’s really important.” The designation of underclassmen English classes furthers the sentiment of the imbalance between STEM and humanities classes. Freshmen and sophomore English classes are designed with a uniform curriculum in mind to make sure that everyone’s on the same track. However, having all students take the same classes in freshman and sophomore year may not always account for the students that are already at the English skill level that the classes are aiming to get students to reach.

Some people understand the justification behind this approach. “[Freshman Composition and European Literature] guarantee the teaching of the basics of analytical and creative writing before introducing different facets to the curriculum,” senior Alvin Yao said. “Once that baseline is established, electives such as Asian American Literature and Shakespearan Literature are offered for students who have developed special interests in those respective periods of time.”

However, the absence of more humanities electives for underclassmen is not only due to the attempt to even the playing field among students; the pre-existing financial system prevents Stuyvesant from hiring more English teachers. “Stuyvesant still allocates its budget so that there aren't enough English classes for freshmen and sophomores to take English electives,” Grossman explained. “In order to change that, we'd need to hire more English teachers.” However, hiring English teachers for new electives means cutting back electives in one department to make room for another, which is a change that is not immediately possible, according to Principal Eric Contreras. “Even if a principal wanted to, [they] really can’t make very sudden shifts in the allocation of electives by the department; there are a set number of teachers in each department, which [doesn’t] move year to year,” Contreras said.

Many students, though, would not want this shift to occur. Zeng believes that the courses correctly reflect the preferences of the student body to take classes in the respective fields. “The school has done an amazing job helping its students find their likes and dislikes, and [it] adjusts accordingly,” Zeng explained. In other words, he feels that because a majority of the student body prefers the STEM fields, course selections are biased toward STEM as well.

With the school’s well-established history, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Stuyvesant focuses heavily on STEM. “There are over 400 high schools in New York City, and people make conscious decisions and have a full understanding of what school they’re going to, its history, and its areas of strength,” Contreras said. But students and teachers still recognize that it’s important to be well-rounded in all aspects. “I don’t believe that we are just STEM people or just humanities people; there’s much more nuance to it,” Liang said. Grossman added, “Even engineers have to write proposals, and no matter what job you do, properly articulating and writing emails is fundamental across all disciplines.”

As Contreras tells prospective freshmen and their families, “Unlike Brooklyn Tech, where students must ‘choose’ a major, or Bronx Science, whose focus is research, Stuyvesant students have much more freedom.” Accordingly, there are many opportunities available to students in terms of classes and electives. “[Having] diverse electives such as Women’s Voices or Asian American Literature really creates a more multidimensional student,” Contreras said. “[This] is something truly unique that I value as a principal.”