Examining the “useless liberal arts major” myth

As I am writing this, a proud student of the College of Arts and Letters (read: tour guide) at our historically engineering-focused school, there is a nationwide conversation on the importance of the humanities in STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics fields like the one we as Stevens students engage in. There is a rising opinion among the leaders of American schools that the developer’s shelf needs room for novels alongside chemistry textbooks, evidenced by built-in seminar courses, interdisciplinary programs, and the newfound “digital humanities,” combining ethics with data or traditional history and music majors with a tech. focus, at schools like Northeastern, MIT, and, well, ours.

However, the rising challenge these American schools’ approach is going up against seems to be, err, engineered in the culture these institutions thrive in: one where a cultural depreciation of the humanities exists.

This weighted claim necessitates a thesis-spanning exploration (shoutout to Romina), but, for now. we’re going to succinctly focus on some national, media-based, and local examples: political leaders from Florida governor Rick Scott to current President Barack Obama have proposed financial emphasis in higher education to STEM fields; the former proposed to decrease tuition in his state for those majoring in “strategic areas,” referring to occupations like “engineers, health care specialists, and technologists,” in 2012, while the latter’s administration invested $240 million in “new private-sector commitments to inspire and prepare more [students]… to excel in STEM fields” last March.

If you Google “are liberal arts majors,” the first two autocomplete results are “useless” and “stupid.” This is perpetuated by articles like The Daily Beast’s “The 13 Most Useless Majors, from Philosophy to Journalism” and statements like the one former Republican presidential candidate — and holder of a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies — Jeb! Bush made at a South Carolina town hall last year regarding a university’s responsibilities towards its students: “It’s important to have liberal arts … but realize, you’re going to be working [at] a Chick-fil-A.’” Combine that with a regard for humanities courses as “a joke,” “looked down upon,” and “ignored” (anonymous quotes from Stevens students talking about reactions to the program here) and you don’t need to take one of our cultural studies courses to realize why people may think a liberal arts major is a “useless” one.

However, for as much as we’re seeing this myth being perpetuated, there is also a rising need for a humanities outlook post-grad. If we are to assume “usefulness” is built upon financial gain and occupational success, the evidence is there: an article Forbes published last year about popular collaboration app, Slack, pushed the idea that the liberal arts degrees editorial director Anna Pickard (theater) and CEO Stewart Butterfield (philosophy) picked up guided their success.

A study published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems reported, “Liberal arts majors close earnings gaps [and] earn more than professional majors at peak earnings ages.” With CAL majors graduating to jobs at NBC, Panasonic, and the New York Times, the takeaway is less so “A liberal arts degree? Good luck getting a job” and more “No drive to integrate your liberal arts degree? Good luck getting a job.” Despite the presence of certain disregard of the humanities here, there is an imperative need for it.

And if you’re still thinking that the liberal arts doesn’t have potential at Stevens, consider this: you’re reading a student-run newspaper written by [mostly] engineering students. There’s no degree in journalism here, not even a “communications” umbrella to major under– the closest we have are the relatively new Science and Technology Studies majors, which focus on “[analyzing] science and technology in broad historical, social, and political contexts,” and a Gender and Cultural Studies minor, a synthesis of courses from several programs. Alongside this are fairly regular initiatives by CAL faculty like the Creative Writing Contest (email Professor Middleton for more information!) and discussion-based forums (like the insightful Black History Month events co-sponsored with the Office of Undergraduate Student Life) where students can engage in cultural discussion.

Institutions on campus like The Stute are examples of student-built spaces where those looking to itch their liberal arts scratch can do so and gain critical writing skills in the process. What’s so useless about that?