Our basic humanity

Cal in Color

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Despite my endless attempts to seem as devoid of human emotions as fundamentally possible, I am what you call a big softie. Perhaps this is due to my perpetual unluckiness and being born under the sign of Aquarius, or due to the fact that my family brings home a new baby animal every two years. Either way, my humanitarian tendencies keep me at volunteer opportunities throughout Oakland. This awareness has always lingered in the back of my hyperemotional brain, resurfacing every time I make important life decisions, including my major.

In the world of STEM, having a degree in humanities seems sort of trivial, and yes, I am dreading post-undergrad life. Although it might feel like being a small fish in a big pond, being a humanities major has real-life applications that provide critical thinking and problem-solving skills in ways that STEM cannot, and the humanities are valuable in ways that we overlook to our own detriment.

I’ve often had many of my STEM friends not understand why they were forced to pay (incredibly expensive) tuition on classes they had no interest in or that had no value in relation to their major. (Arguably, they have a point.) In many ways, they considered themselves to be completely removed from the field of humanities, focusing solely on the technical aspects of the STEM fields.

Currently, in order to graduate, both liberal arts and STEM students generally must complete both humanities and STEM courses in the form of breadth requirements. Across these fields, however, dedicated study of Black and Indigenous groups is optional outside the American Cultures requirement — even though these groups are society’s most vulnerable.

Humanities courses give you a cultural overview of the impact that technological, medical and scientific fields have on society, and how these fields affect the implicit and explicit rules of our culture. Majors such as rhetoric and philosophy help to break down the impacts these disciplines have on everyday life — a perspective STEM majors badly neglect when they ignore humanities classes.

Recently, there have been many debates on whether or not colleges should make specific humanities classes (in addition to the ones already in place) a requirement regardless of major, and a petition has been circulated around campus encouraging an additional African American and Native/Indigenous studies breadth requirement.

Ethnic historical studies — specifically Black and Indigenous classes — are necessary additions to our breadth requirements, especially for STEM students, who graduate then continue on in their careers to influence technologies and policies that affect the lives of millions of people, and need to understand the vulnerabilities that different communities face.

Recently, many have noticed the unbalanced treatment that BIPOC endure under STEM institutions, ranging from more benign oversights such as soap dispensers not recognizing Black hands to grossly ignored injustices such as the epidemic of mistreatment of Black women during childbirth and in medicine generally. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women — and this disparity increases with age.” These are problems that come directly from STEM disciplines, and students need far more substantive interethnic context to understand that unchecked biases and underlying racism have severe consequences — and must be understood by STEM students before they get to the workforce.

One example is wonderfully portrayed in an article from the Guardian by Leo Hickman, called “How algorithms rule the world,” which details how algorithms have come to dominate the technology market and are being coded by people with doctorates at large universities without the proper regulations. These algorithms have gone on to be used in areas such as predictive policing, without their authors appreciating their devastating consequences for vulnerable groups. Even outside of policing, racism is present in areas we don’t normally consider, such as ride-hailing apps. A study of Uber and Lyft showed that the companies charged their users more for going to nonwhite neighborhoods.

Acknowledging that ethnic studies classes are available to students every semester, requiring them would ensure STEM majors understand (or at the very least, introduce them to) the systemic harm that BIPOC experience at the hands of the STEM industries. With a complete perspective, STEM students can, later on, identify these systemic injustices in their respective fields — and hopefully begin to address them.

The dichotomy between the sciences and the humanities does not exist, and propagating this narrative in academia suggests students need not take responsibility for rejecting harmful intuitions and combating their own ignorance. After all, the intention of the breadth requirement is to create a rich education and produce well-rounded students. All I’m asking is that while fulfilling the requirements for their degree, STEM students also meet the evolving — and improving — requirements of basic humanity.

Savon Bardell writes the Friday column on the experience of being a Black student at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]