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Stop devaluing the humanities

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APRIL 10, 2019

When I was younger, my grandmother used to read poetry to me during our long phone calls each week. A retired English professor, she would often recite Wordsworth verses from memory. I would repeat after her, “I wandered lonely as a cloud / that floats on high o’er vales and hills” smiling to myself when I successfully recited the entire verse. I would read her my stories and she would tell me to never stop reading and writing. And I listened. As I continued following my grandmother’s advice, I developed a love for literature that became a large part of my life.

When I was deciding whether to attend UC Berkeley, I was thrilled about the possibility of having access to not only world-renowned computer science facilities, but also the #1 English department in the world. I talked to an older friend at UC Berkeley for advice who told me, “You should definitely do CS. You can do English for fun, but just know that the opportunities and value it would be bring are so much less than CS.”

I was hurt that she completely devalued one of my biggest passions. I was tired of people viewing STEM as the only path to a legitimate and stable career. They saw the humanities as disciplines to do for fun, add-on hobbies to a busy schedule, like hot yoga. But English wasn’t something I wanted to do because I was bored. To me, English was a discipline that pushed me to think critically about the world and society, from the ethical considerations of science to systems of power.

As I have grown older, I have become more and more frustrated with the lack of respect and value esteemed to the humanities, especially in the realm of STEM. I’ve seen memes on Facebook that continuously portray the humanities as less important pursuits than STEM fields. I remember seeing a meme about what could happen if people failed to declare the CS major. The first option was to declare data science, stigmatized throughout campus as the “lesser” CS — trust me, try searching data science in UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens. But the second option was to transfer to global studies.

Seeing this meme, I couldn’t help but feel angry. I felt like the meme was suggesting that global studies was an easy, lowly alternative people chose when they “gave up” on harder majors like electrical engineering. But to me, majors like global studies are valid, important fields of study that prepares students to understand social and political issues in different spheres of the world.

I was frustrated that people were measuring the worthiness of a field of study based on how much money and prestige it would give them. More than anything, I was tired of people measuring the validity of a field of study by how intensive it is, with the most engineering and logical thinking disciplines being at the top of the food chain, and the most creative and philosophical disciplines at the bottom.

Because more often than not, these standards of academic superiority are highly gendered. When I was visiting my friend at another school, the conversation on studying majors like design came up. My friend’s hallmate stated while adjusting his stance in her doorway, “Design is for rich white girls who don’t have actual engineering skills.” I had heard comments like this at UC Berkeley too, with male peers in technical classes scoffing at designers and insisting that they should instead do the “real work” of building a technical application.

But why were fields like design — fields that were more creative and less logic-based — seen as feminine and therefore less valued? The only reason I could think of was that these fields were largely dominated by women, which made the men around me see these fields through their sexism. They saw these fields as soft, impractical, easy. The sad thing is, I found myself also perpetuating these toxic ideas. When I was considering taking less coursework to focus on my writing classes, I remember thinking to myself that English was too girly. I felt the need to do something extremely valued and dominated by men, such as building circuits or studying the applications of mathematics, to prove my validity as a student at UC Berkeley.

I’m tired of the humanities being viewed as more feminine and therefore less valued than STEM fields. I’m tired of being told I should drop my major in English to a minor so I can focus on CS, when in reality, I am more committed to my English degree. I’m tired of hearing important fields of study talked about as girly and just a “waste of time.” Philosophy, literature, gender studies, and history all bring a richer understanding of humanity and thinking to the world.

But more than anything, I’m more determined than ever to not let these toxic mentalities with regards to humanities shape my own understanding of the subjects I love. I will always love words and analyzing literature, regardless of whether its seen as “soft” or “not real” work. I refuse to accept the narrative that humanities are a gendered, less important domain than STEM. I would not be who I am without the humanities — the world would not be either.

Riya Berry writes the Wednesday blog on being a womxn in color in computer science and technology. Contact her at [email protected].

APRIL 11, 2019