Not just STEM, or, Why the American Economy Needs Humanities Majors



Poster from Federal Art Project/WPA

This blog usually focuses on opening the door to science occupations for groups traditionally under-represented in those fields.  Obviously, one aim here is the creation of more opportunities for rewarding and remunerative STEM-related careers for women, minorities and persons with disabilities.  All good. But I have to turn our attention for a minute to a logical fallacy that such activism might unfortunately support: the idea that higher education in the humanities and social sciences is a bad idea for any young person hoping for a paying career.

This is a trope that goes with the pervasive idea that American is suffering from a STEM talent shortage as “competitor” nations build their technical workforces…Which in some narrow sense might be the case, but the answer to that shortage is to provide more kids with higher quality, more welcoming science programming, NOT to turn young people away from their non-STEM passions and pleasures!

Frank Bruni’s column on “The Imperiled Promised of College” restates that not-very-good idea in today’s New York Times.  He fittingly notes the unaffordable cost of college for too many Americans today, but less helpfully sees a worrisome insistence among many students on dead-end degree programs that lead to less-than-meaningful working lives:

 Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer’s cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at the Zara where they peddle skinny jeans.

As is often the case with such plaints, students’ engagement with humanities, arts and social science disciplines comes across in Bruni’s telling as pointless and naïve. But why should we accept that these venerable intellectual pursuits are occupational cul-de-sacs? You would have to accept the existence of an awful lot of social and cultural constraints in the process of doing so.

First:  You would have to accept that the low employment prospects for today’s humanities and social science grads mean that those disciplines are inherently a waste of everyone’s time and money—including the time and money of the anthropology, art history, film studies and philosophy majors who make up some of my brightest and most engaging students.  I will not be the one to tell these kids to suppress their fabulous curiosity, creativity and insight.

That first judgment in turn rests on the presumption that as a nation we cannot afford to create jobs for our arts and humanities graduates. The WPA famously produced some of the most enduring art, drama, and civil architecture in American history, but if that kind of outcome is too touchy-feely for you, think more practically.  Imagine not just the wealth of student experience and cultural excitement that a nationwide artist-, designer- or writer-in-residence program for American high schools would generate, but how students’ expressive abilities and communications skills would improve!  (…according to many educators, the very same  “soft skills” too many of our engineering students lack!)

And what about the democratic (dare I say, “global”?) potential of a nation with more science writers, equipped with federal grants to support their work for local newspapers? Or , with more social scientists specializing in research on the origins and impacts of science, technology and medicine…with funding to share their findings with both expert and community groups?  Our university humanities and social science programs can produce superb practitioners to fill these and many other positions.

Instead, Bruni and others wring their hands in unimaginative supplication to the conventional economic analysis that privileges industrial profits and  the projects that assure those profits.  The impoverished cultural and civic life that this vision projects for America is truly depressing… And, offers another instance where today’s low level of public resources for American arts and letters is naturalized as necessary for a healthy economy, asserting that we just don’t have the money for activities that don’t make money  (…or, make money for those who already have a way to make money, that is; NB how CEO salaries continued climbing throughout the recession).

Would we need big political and cultural changes to bring about this kind of renewal for the status and scale of humanities in American higher ed, a new and unfamiliar vision of what matters, and why? You bet…and just the job for artists, writers, philosophers and historians!

The STEM Gender Gap: Persistent but not Puzzling

This week of science festivals around the nation has mostly been a very festive occasion, indeed (I, for example, learned at a “science cabaret” last night that Linneaus was obsessed with bananas). It has also brought forth welcome coverage of equity issues in STEM fields: the perpetually low numbers of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in U.S. science and technology occupations. The correction of that under-representation partly justifies the festivals as efforts at STEM outreach and inclusion.

But in that coverage, my eye was caught by the very last point in a long article from PBS NewsHour by Jenny Marder this week, “Why Engineering, Science Gender Gap Persists.”

In this piece, Angela Bielefeldt, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Boulder who has done some very interesting work on the topic, had the last word:

“The important thing to note is how long we’ve been at this,” Bielefeldt said. “The fact that we’ve made no tangible forward progress despite working on this for a long time is puzzling and depressing… and again, we’re not sure what the secret is.”

“Depressing,” yes. That captures it perfectly. But: “Puzzling?” And, “Secret?” I think that language may arise from a spirit of thoughtful inquiry, but set up too many listeners to shrug and move on. I wonder if we too often use a politely perturbed tone to direct attention to something that is really far closer to bigotry than mystery.

As I see it, the previous pages of the article laid out many causes proven by studies over the last 40 (!) years to have contributed to women’s under-representation in STEM classrooms and jobs. These causes range from documented sexism in teaching, hiring and promotion practices to, “…A lack of female mentors” and ”subtle discrimination or work conditions in which men talk in a way that women found disrespectful.” Those are findings produced not by some narrow academic specialty, but by diverse scholarly disciplines (educational theory, workforce policy analysis, psychology, and by scholars in science and engineering themselves),  and by researchers from a huge range of institutions. Their sheer numbers add up to a powerful message for those who are willing to hear it: Day-to-day life in American classrooms and workplaces involves a constant stream of presumptions about the inborn capacities and desires of people of different identities.

There is no subtlety in the way these presumptions work to disadvantage certain groups. That’s clear  from the facts recounted in the article and broadcast, even if you don’t read the deeply disturbing collection of reactionary and creepily retrograde comments which follows the article (many referring to women’s innate intellectual disinclination towards science, or characterizing those concerned with these issues as “cry babies”…). What if Bielefeldt, a person who has clearly seen endless dismaying moments of this kind, had faced the microphone and instead of framing the problem as a mysterious social malaise had said instead, “The behavior I see every day  in classrooms, in labs, in administrative offices, and on civil engineering worksites is discriminatory, and unacceptable”?

Crucially, I don’t mean to say I would have done so.  The circumstances in which STEM activism occurs are by definition settings in which we must make our livings; it is terribly difficult to bring blame into the discussion. And, yes, those proverbial flies do prefer honey. More seriously, I deeply appreciate the very constructive (not blameful) cultural critique and pedagogical ideas introduced into the NewsHour discussion by Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and a powerful advocate for bringing young women into the sciences. But if Klawe’s suggestions are to take hold in a significant number of educational settings, I want to suggest that in our discussions of the “gender gap,” we have to stop scratching our heads and own up to the dismal social reality revealed by the evidence offered by experts featured on the program, if not their tone.

The take-home: It is the very stuck-ness of Americans around equity issues, the fact of sexisms’ durability, that we need to foreground.  This lack of progress, as Bielefeldt says, is “the important thing to note.”  Unfortunately, her interviewers or their editors consigned that “thing” to the last note of the discussion. We should start our discussions, in the media and in our own institutions,  grasping and declaring this fact, not puzzled in the least.