For real progress, fund the humanities

Illustration of a robotic hand and a human hand supporting the Earth, with depictions of STEM and humanities activities in the background
Yoonseo Lee/Staff

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An hour’s drive from Silicon Valley, UC Berkeley and its educational priorities continue to be impacted by the tech bubble’s emphasis on scientific and technological innovation. Students have responded to constant pressure to participate in this progress by seeking out STEM degrees that promise financial success while casting aside so-called frivolous pursuits in the humanities.

The cost of this emphasis on “marketability” — and an implicit denial of creativity, art and “soft” skills — will be catastrophic. Educational institutions and legislators alike must recognize the value of skills taught in the humanities, such as communication, writing and critical thinking, by supporting students in the humanities with the same vigor as those in STEM fields.

Recent initiatives, such as the Department of Defense’s commitment to fund STEM education, have encouraged educators to nurture an interest in STEM in young students. While these enterprises have sought to instill early curiosity in science and technology, that’s not the whole story. Government programs also have a vested interest in preparing students to function as participants in an increasingly tech-driven economy and to compete in a globalizing world.

In response to this implicit pressure, students have enrolled in STEM subjects at record-breaking rates, while enrollment in arts and humanities subjects is dropping. Over the last 10 years, the number of English majors declined by 22% and the number of history students by 45%. In stark contrast, there were 54% more mathematics graduates over the same period and 60% more graduated with engineering degrees.

This is not merely a trend in higher education. National initiatives such as those promoted by the Goddard School, a network of more than 500 preschools, have incorporated STEM education into their programs for children as young as 6 weeks old. As this trend continues, it seems possible that the next generation of UC Berkeley students will have commenced their STEM education as many as 15 years prior to entering the university’s doors.

At a time of increased political polarization, it is more important than ever to emphasize, rather than abandon, skills taught in humanities classes. History can often be a tool of political rhetoric, most potently seen in former president Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission, an ostensibly nationalist attempt to “restore patriotic education.” When this history is not subjected to intense and critical scrutiny in university classrooms, it is at risk of being forgotten or else rewritten by those who might seek to erase unfavorable episodes in our nation’s past.

One of the most essential skills necessary to address political polarization is the ability to identify and combat misperceptions of opposing viewpoints. This kind of critical thinking is often developed through a strong background in subjects such as history, in which students are taught to use textual evidence and examine reasoning. If we continue to treat humanities and social sciences as dispensable, we will rob future generations of the ability to address the conflicts that have ravaged our national conscience.

In our current academic climate, the STEM-ification crisis will only continue. To mitigate this, educators at the elementary and high school levels must prioritize critical analysis, writing and other qualitative skills alongside math and science. According to a 2019 UCLA survey, the most common reason students chose to attend university was to attain a good job. The definition of a “good” job, however, is defined by the value society places on certain professions. At this moment, legislators and educators alike have chosen to define that value by one’s ability to crunch numbers.

Both former president Barack Obama’s and Trump’s administrations announced plans to increase funding for education in STEM. Simultaneously, test scores among high school students in civics and history, subjects essential for educated citizenship, are abysmally low. At a time when it is more crucial than ever for teenagers to learn how to recognize media bias and think analytically about social issues, these softer skills should not be overlooked in favor of STEM education. Legislators must delegate funding toward the humanities and social sciences at both the secondary and university levels with similar enthusiasm.

In a 2017 survey conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, more than a third of the adults surveyed did not know the rights enumerated in the First Amendment of the Constitution. If educators do not rigorously emphasize the importance of an education in politics, history and other qualitative subjects, the consequences will be disastrous. The next generation of Americans will not merely be unable to defend their rights, but they will also not know which rights are theirs to defend.

If we keep telling would-be J.D. Salingers and Hannah Arendts to choose high-paying careers over their passions, I fear a future devoid of art. If we continue to encourage students to choose the technical over the analytical, I fear a future where history’s mistakes are repeated.

Today, as we address the aftermath of the previous presidential administration, it’s necessary to reexamine our hyper-fixation on technological progress. To orient our country toward a truly progressive future, we must place monetary and legislative value on the skills required to achieve it.

Katherine Booska is a UC Berkeley sophomore studying history and political economy.