Op-Ed: STEM-centered education risks alienating arts and humanities students


Photo credit: Eloise Rollins-Fife

These lab coats are a staple of Archer's science classrooms and were introduced for the 2015 STEM Symposium. Focus on STEM-centered education can often leave students interested in other disciplines feeling overlooked.

If, like me, you’ve spent your life immersed in the ‘soft’ disciplines, a term commonly applied to the arts and humanities, you might have been (justifiably) upset by Wells Fargo’s September ads.

The print ads, which I’ll forgive but never forget, showed presumably teenaged models tinkering with microscopes, test tubes and other scientific tools.  On the first page, there’s a picture of an excited-looking girl in her lab, with the words “A ballerina yesterday. An engineer today,” and the campaign’s slogan “Let’s get them ready for tomorrow” superimposed on top. In the second, a boy happily plays with a test tube full of dirt and is similarly displayed under a banner stating, “An actor yesterday. A botanist today. Let’s get them ready for tomorrow.” 

Apparently, tomorrow is full of budding botanists and utterly devoid of artistic expression. Cool.

Wells Fargo has since apologized for the offending campaign, but clearly they brought to light an issue that’s become pervasive in modern American culture: the systematic devaluing of the humanities and arts in favor of STEM-based (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programming.

That’s absolutely not to say, of course, that STEM isn’t important. Technological growth and scientific progress have been and will continue to be hallmarks of a productive society. Where would we be without the advancements in medicine that have allowed for mass vaccination? The computer programming that’s given us iPhones and laptops and revolutionized our global communication? The biological discoveries that have illuminated the origins of our world? Certainly in a very different place.

However, it’s vital that we don’t forget about the schools of philosophical thought that allow us to track our world’s progression or the vibrant artistic communities that inject life into our culture.

There’s a broad political trend of denouncing the humanities in favor of tech-based education, especially for girls. This is obviously not without its logic or benefits; we’ve all heard the statistic that women comprise only 24 percent of the STEM workforce, and it’s absolutely true that this is a problem that needs addressing. We should be encouraging girls to explore the maths and sciences — if they want to.

If they don’t, however, let’s stop making them feel like they’re worthless in today’s job market or social climate. A 2015 Forbes article revealed that powerhouse tech companies such as Slack have focused their talent searches on recipients of non-STEM-related degrees, because, as Forbes puts it, “The more that audacious coders dream of changing the world, the more they need to fill their companies with social alchemists who can connect with customers–and make progress seem pleasant.”

In other words, the world —even the corporate one — needs all types of thinkers to thrive. If everyone became an engineer or a botanist, sure, we’d have a lot of cool software and impressive plants, but we’d lose TV, movies, theater, visual art, literature, journalism and all the people who make those things, as well as government policy-makers, educators, activists, designers and a whole host of other vitally important members of society.

Additionally, the arts and humanities are worthwhile not only for those who intend to pursue them as a career, but for everyone, mathematicians and scientists included. A huge part of any job is writing, and it’s critical to develop strong English skills to succeed in all fields. Historical and civic knowledge is important for all members of a democratic society to possess, and something that has tragically fallen by the wayside in recent decades. Art is an outlet for creative expression that has been shown to dramatically increase student achievement across all disciplines and promote “creativity, social development, personality adjustment, and self-worth.”

In a lot of ways, Archer celebrates and encourages these softer subjects, and in other ways, it sometimes feels like they don’t. It can be tough to see us featured in shows like “Fablab,” or watch our STEM-focused friends visit the mayor or witness the high-tech, high-priced IDEALab and not feel a little bit overlooked. Archer does some great things for its arts and humanities programs, including Literature &, Shakespeare on the Green and the annual Film Festival, but if you look at the “Signature and Co-Curricular Programs” from the “Fast Facts” pamphlet, five out of nine are STEM related, while only three relate to either the arts or the humanities. And maybe this is just my own perception, but it feels like when we discuss Archer’s curriculum, STEM is one of the first things to be mentioned and often becomes the focus of the conversation.

I don’t mean to suggest that Archer doesn’t care about its arts or humanities students because I fundamentally believe that to be untrue. We are given many opportunities in these subjects, for which I’m truly grateful.

I merely think that, given the national movement towards devaluing the humanities (according to DoSomething.org, “Federal funding for the arts and humanities rolls in around $250 million a year, while the National Science Foundation is funded around the $5 billion mark”), it would be nice to see a shift in the local spotlight and a more vocal celebration of everything the arts and humanities are worth.

And they’re worth a lot.