The economic picture isn’t exactly rosy for anyone right now: Fortune reports that the Brookings Institution believes we’re still 8.3 million jobs away from fully recovering from the Great Recession. In fact, we may not see total recovery until July of 2020.

There isn’t a lot that the average job seeker can do to fix this, but there is one thing many experts agree on: if you want to find a job in these difficult times, you’re better off getting a college degree. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that “[b]etween 2000 and 2013, the unemployment rate for individuals without a bachelor’s degree was generally higher than the rate for their peers with at least a bachelor’s degree.” The NCES saw this pattern in a variety of demographics, including 20- to 24-year-olds, 25- to 34-year-olds, and 25- to 64-year-olds. You can delve into the actual numbers on the NCES page, but, suffice to say, the pattern exists. Generally, people who hold bachelor’s degrees are more likely to be employed than those who don’t.

We can say, then, that it’s better to have a degree than to not have one. Of course, getting a degree isn’t that simple. Once you’ve enrolled in college, you have to figure out what degree you’re going to pursue. Usually, this choice is discussed in terms of two broad categories: will you major in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) field, or will you major in the humanities?

STEM vs. Humanities

Those who argue that students should choose STEM often do so on the grounds that STEM fields are more practical and better for the economy. STEM majors, the conventional wisdom goes, contribute directly to the world with new advances in science and technology. STEM majors are more likely to get jobs, and their jobs have higher salaries, STEM proponents argue.

Humanities fields, on the other hand, are impractical, divorced from the real world, and elitist. While STEM graduates are out creating new technologies to better our lives, humanities majors are reading fiction and writing impenetrable academic papers.

STEM proponents often want to see funding to humanities programs cut in favor of the STEM fields (see Florida governor Rick Scott’s plan to shift public money away from the humanities and into STEM programs. His reasoning: “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state”).

Unlike some of the big-name STEM supporters, humanities proponents don’t generally disparage their opponents as useless. After all, it’s pretty hard to argue that technological improvements don’t make the world better. What humanities proponents do argue, however, is that their fields are not elitist and divorced from reality. The Stanford Humanities Center asserts that the humanities teach students to “think creatively and critically, to reason, and to ask questions.” These skills lead to “new insights into everything from poetry and paintings to business models and politics.” As such, the humanities contribute just as much to society – they just contribute in different ways than the STEM fields.

(Note that not all STEM supporters view the humanities as useless. As MIT professor Deborah K. Fitzgerald writes, “some may be surprised, and, I hope, reassured, to learn that here at MIT — a bastion of STEM education — we view the humanities, arts, and social sciences as essential, both for educating great engineers and scientists, and for sustaining our capacity for innovation.” Of course, if everyone shared this belief, there would be no debate. And, as we saw with Gov. Scott above, some powerful STEM proponents reject this sort of thinking, in favor of a much less nuanced approach to education.)

A False Dilemma 

As frustrating as this debate has become for both sides, we don’t need to be having it in the first place. I cite Prof. Fitzgerald above, and it should come as no surprise that her comments are not some idealistic “can’t-we-all-just-get-along?” pleading. The terms of the STEM vs. humanities debate are significantly warped, especially on the side of STEM proponents like Gov. Scott (note: it should also come as no surprise that many of the people who would have you believe the humanities are useless are not, in fact, involved in STEM or academia in any significant way.)

As higher-ed journalist Lynn O’Shaugnessy points out, the belief that STEM majors are more economically successful than their humanities counterparts is largely unfounded: “The Chronicle of Higher Education [sic] wrote an exhaustive article on the subject [of the STEM employment advantage] in which the author interviewed experts across the country and shared research on whether STEM majors enjoy an employment advantage.  According to the article, most independent researcher say the answer is no.”

Forbes contributor John Ebersole calls attention to another problem with the STEM vs. humanities debate: the very terms of the debate are terribly muddled. It turns out that we don’t have a clear, consensus definition of who counts as a STEM worker. Different studies of STEM workers, operating with different definitions, result in entirely different estimates of the size of the STEM workforce.

“Lacking an agreed upon definition of a STEM job,” writes Ebersole, “it becomes obvious that the calculation of a shortage or overage of supply to demand is nearly impossible to defend.  Additionally, of the Commerce Department’s 7.6 million STEM workers, 4.3 million or more than half don’t have a degree in a STEM field.”

The last sentence is especially important: not only are calculations of the STEM workforce flawed, but a significant chunk of STEM workers don’t even hold STEM degrees.

(Tells us again, Gov. Scott, how dire it is for us to fund STEM programs to the detriment of the humanities.)

Even more damning to the STEM supremacists are the findings of a Michigan State University (MSU) study which concluded that STEM graduates “who own businesses or patents received up to eight times more exposure to the arts as children than the general public.” STEM and the humanities really do seem to work together for the benefit of society. It seems the STEM vs. humanities dilemma may, in fact, be nonsense.

What Should You Major In?

I wrote all of this in the hope that I could help assuage the fears of present and soon-to-be students. Stuck in the middle of this loud and somewhat acrimonious public debate, many ask themselves: “What should I major in? Do I follow those who tell me I’ll never get a job or contribute to society without a STEM degree? Are the humanities even a viable option?”

It turns out that deciding what to major in is pretty easy: choose a field that you find exciting, invigorating, and enjoyable, and pursue it.

As we’ve seen, the STEM fields don’t have all of the advantages that some claim they have, and the humanities are not at all useless or out of touch.

What’s more, Inside Higher Ed reports that “nearly three-quarters of business leaders say it is more important for job candidates to be well-rounded with a range of abilities than to have industry-specific skills.” Most business leaders “value broadly applicable skills like written communication and problem-solving over specific skills obtained through applied training.”

These broadly applicable skills are skills that students can learn in any field. People pursuing their degrees need not worry about what they major in. They only need to worry about developing their skills in the context of a field that they enjoy.



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