Prisms of Perception 3: Studying Humanities in a STEM Society
I’m sure we can all agree that there is clear segregation between humanities subjects and STEM subjects in academic environments. There is certainly more of a stigma attached to the arts subjects, being regarded as simply not as valuable as those of science and engineering disciplines. Tell someone you study maths, and you may get a response along the lines of ‘oh my gosh, I don’t know how you do it’, and ‘you must be so clever’. Tell someone you’re an English student, like myself, you may get a response similar to the many that I’ve received, including, ‘what do you actually study in your degree?’, ‘isn’t that just writing about verbs and adjectives’, ‘where can you even get with that?’. Believe me, I’ve had every ounce of doubt you can imagine thrown at me.
Let’s first break down what each area of study entails. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, while humanities and social sciences include subjects like literature, languages, philosophy, history and so on. If you think back to school days, most of us certainly preferred one subject over another, even if you were pretty good at everything. Now looking back, I definitely think that was the case in my situation. The number of maths tests I had failed, the number of science homework I’ve cried over, it took me a while to accept that I simply preferred my Spanish and literature lessons, over trying to calculate projectile motion. But having a mother with a physics degree, a person who I most definitely hold in high regard, I wanted to be just like her. I thought her having a mini physicist of her own would make her proud. On top of this, having aunts and uncles in science fields didn’t encourage my humanities hopes in any way.
I’m sure a number of people can relate to this pressure. Now, I can’t say my heritage was to blame in this case, because I’m extremely thankful that my family don’t fall into the stereotyped Asian family who just wants all their children to become doctors. It was this stereotype that formulated the joke surrounding maths, biology, chemistry and physics being known as ‘The Asian Equation’ in school (still giggling at this to this day). But for many people, their heritage and the stigma their culture attaches to certain subjects play a huge role in the decisions they make. And unfortunately, this is often at the expense of their own happiness. Someone who may want to study languages, for instance, simply may not be able to pursue that, with family influences suggesting that studying science would be a more viable option for them for several reasons.
Particularly prevalent in Eastern cultures, the concept of reputation and social acceptance can never seem to diminish. And one major contributor to social acceptance would be a strong financial record. And in countries where job opportunities are more limited than in the West, a job that would be easier to grasp in such an economic climate, would be a job that has more of a direct impact on the community, such as medicine. This would offer higher financial security in the long term. So, if you chose a discipline that didn’t offer you this security, it may just cause a little stir. Concerned parents, concerned peers. But the issue arises when the encouragement to choose ‘security’ becomes more of a forceful push, and, eventually, becomes a decision about what makes oneself happy, also at the risk of making the family unhappy. Therefore, since there are, in fact, fewer opportunities for the humanities and arts to manifest their importance, their impact simply isn’t recognised as much. However, if you did wish to pursue the arts here in the UK, you would stand a much better chance of establishing a career in many arts-based or creative fields, such as writing, journalism, performing arts and much more. But what is it that causes these stigmas towards the arts to arise?
This may be because STEM subjects are what I like to call the ‘tangible subjects’. It’s true that studying humanities doesn’t create medicines. They don’t build bridges and they don’t build planes. So with tangible products being the vision of development and proof of progression in our society, I guess it’s understandable why STEM subjects are so highly encouraged. It’s because your studies and your knowledge in the area would undoubtedly contribute to some valuable research, so many parents would want their children to be part of that. Additionally, in countries such as Pakistan, where economic development isn’t as advanced as here in the UK, which can often be seen in the simplest things, such as differences in infrastructure, an improvement in such areas would be a great change. And it’s in situations like these that all the STEM students would come in handy. Some may assume humanities and social sciences, technically, have ‘no value’ when it comes to social change.
When I finally decided to retake a year of my A-levels and began to study the subjects I truly wanted to, that’s when I started to gain even more of an appreciation for the arts. I realised in my literature lessons how each page written in those novels was a form of individual expression. How the written word was used so creatively to discuss topics that we as a society would consider ‘taboo’, or just simply don’t wish to talk about. My thought process and attitudes towards many political and social issues changed dramatically after even just a year of my amazing literature teacher tapping into our imaginations. I noticed that many stories I had read, were told through experience. And if they weren’t told through experience, they were told through the individual’s own perception. I was able to see the world through the eyes of somebody who saw it differently from me, understand many things and form empathy. Alongside literature, I also studied English Language. This was an amazing way to understand the intricacies of language use, and how we use our words to essentially construct relationships. These two subjects paired together made me realise how much I had taken for granted, in terms of perceiving the environment around me. Now, my third subject I studied, was psychology. A subject which is constantly up for debate, about whether it is, in fact, a science subject or not. Well, I certainly think it is. However, the social aspect of the subject really complimented my other two subjects I have to say. With literature and language helping me understand how people think the way they think, psychology helped me understand why people think that way. Combining all these subjects into one, that’s how my interest in linguistics developed. Studying the construction of language in the mind and its social impact seemed like the best choice I could’ve made. And my education in the humanities and arts areas has most certainly aided me to apply my knowledge to all areas of life. It’s helped me think outside the box far more than I thought I could.
If more people began to see equal importance of the humanities disciplines, of course, there stands a high possibility of them gaining the same value that the STEM subjects currently hold. This includes those cultures where the stigma attached to the arts appears to be more extensive, where the potential of humanities-oriented research and the contribution of philosophy, languages and literature in our day-to-day lives simply isn’t recognised. Because whether we realise it or not, we come across just as many analytical situations in our daily lives as we do logical. Fast forward five years, my mother now has a little linguist on her hands rather than a physicist. Our discussions and conversations remain varied, opinionated, and overall, very interesting. My stepfather who holds a philosophy degree, again, I am fortunate to have very thought-provoking conversations with. No matter what discipline you choose to pursue, it’s vital to remember that any knowledge you gain, will remain invaluable. Any contribution, is a contribution that will continue to change the way we think and progress, no matter in what register that may occur. Each and every occupation that is pursued is vital for the sustaining of our world and society.
©️ photo from Unsplash.
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