In early March of 2018, in an effort to solve a $4.5 million budget deficit, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point announced a plan to cut 13 of its humanities majors, including English, history, political science, art and world languages. The university’s administration said that students attending college are looking to major in fields with more clear-cut career paths—which are mostly STEM-related fields. By expressing the desire to shift the focus to “high-demand career paths,” UWSP has garnered both criticism and praise from students, faculty and politicians.
The issue is not that UWSP is refocusing. They are not the only school in the United States to take a more specialized approach to education. As long as there are still universities and trade schools out there offering a wide variety of educational programs, then all fields will continue to survive. Here is the problem: The decision to cut humanities majors perpetuates the already prevalent belief that they have less value than degrees in STEM.
STEM fields have been the most pushed disciplines since the early 2000s, when the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Programme for International Student Assessment revealed that students in the United States were some of the lowest performing in science and mathematics. A report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine described the link between prosperity and STEM jobs and the need for constant innovation in those fields to deal with societal issues. With students underperforming in STEM fields and evidence that those jobs are the most prosperous and are beneficial, the United States launched a nationwide focus on STEM, from kindergarten through higher education.
This response certainly was not a bad thing. If students are underperforming, it is important to do what we can to help them improve. STEM fields provide valuable skills that are not taught in the humanities or social sciences. However, the STEM focus seems to have developed into a preference, an ideal instead of an effort to help students become more competent in areas where they were lacking.
The constant focus on STEM does send a message to those who feel drawn to the humanities. When universities pour money into STEM programs, more scholarships are offered to students majoring in STEM fields and, in the case of UWSP, when humanities majors are the first to go, that it seems to tell those students their interests are not valued. Couple that with the misguided but still perpetuated belief that degrees in philosophy, history, English and other humanities disciplines are useless, and the decision to follow that passion or interest begins to seem hopeless.
As an English education major, I have heard from numerous people that it is a worthless pursuit. Even still, people ask me, “Ew, why would you want to teach English?” Comments and reactions such as this is hurtful and are enough to make a majority of people feel insecure in their choice.
I do not believe that most people have a vendetta against the humanities, but when STEM is emphasized to the extent it is, with significantly less support given to other disciplines, it can seem or be interpreted that way. The problem is not that our country is STEM focused. In an effort to strengthen STEM, it seems that we have neglected disciplines that add tremendous value to education.
The truth of the matter is that no discipline is better than another. To be well-rounded individuals, we need to dip our toes into a variety of fields.
We need the human element that English and history provide through literature and learning about the past. We need biology and chemistry to understand how our world works, art and music to unlock creativity. World languages help us appreciate other cultures and broaden our horizons and sociology gives us an understanding of our society. No one of these fields are the same, and removing any of them from an education eliminates an entire skill set, understanding and an opportunity for growth.
As UWSP works to figure out the future of its institution, and as the world of education evolves, I hope that we are able to rediscover the value of the humanities and embrace those and the STEM fields in designing curriculum. for higher and K12 education.