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April 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 7

There’s Not Just One Path to Success

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As educators, we can make room to champion both STEM and humanities studies.

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School Culture
There’s Not Just One Path to Success
Credit: Rebecca Hendin _ Ikon Images
There is no arguing that STEM has immense value: We live in a global, fast-paced world, and students’ exposure to the content and skills of a STEM-focused education paves a yellow-brick road to the future. But I’m not here to espouse the value of STEM; instead, I hope to raise a few soft questions about what we lose when we prioritize a STEM path for students who might not need, want, or excel in it.
In a 2023 article in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller shares concerning trends emerging from universities. As the number of students seeking STEM degrees multiplies, we are in a free fall of enrollment in the study of humanities. This is a global shift, with 80 percent of all countries reporting a drop in the studying of humanities in the past decade. Why is this happening? Messages from media, society, and even their own teachers have convinced many students there is more money and clout to be found in a STEM-based career. And while it is true that STEM-based careers can be lucrative, it should alarm us that considerations of a student’s passions, aptitude, and fit are often missing from these messages.
Last summer, I led a professional development session for a district in a neighboring state. My session was part of a larger conference, and on the last day, I had time to attend a student panel. I was especially intrigued by one of the speakers, a student named Anaa. After the panel, I tracked her down. We ended up talking for a long time and stayed in touch after the ­conference was over. Anaa is an exceedingly talented young woman, naturally gifted with language and art. She has a talent for leadership, whether presenting with a large group of peers or participating in a small-group discussion with adults. She is articulate, hilarious, insightful, and creative. At 16, she describes herself as her family’s live-in chef, game night coordinator, and social manager. Altruistic and independent, she recently flew alone on an inter­continental flight, accompanying a dog who was being rehomed.
Anaa has always had strong scores in math and science, which is likely why her high school teachers have consistently advised her to pursue a STEM path in college. “I have to,” she told me, almost desperately, even though performance expectations in high-level physics and chemistry classes are causing her extreme anxiety. She feels perpetually “behind” and worries about her grades constantly. Anaa’s mother encourages her to consider a humanities route, feeling it better fits Anaa’s heart and soul; but Anaa insists on staying the course. “It’s especially important for me to study STEM,” she said. “There aren’t enough women in STEM.”
She seems to believe the STEM world is in dire need of more study and feels a responsibility to represent women in the profession. What saddens me most is her conviction that studying humanities would be an ­indicator of failure.

I’m not here to argue that STEM is a better path or humanities is a better path. I’m here to propose that we need both.

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The “Magic” of the Humanities

I feel for Anaa. As a student, I slogged through science and math. I spent hours with calculus tutors and in chemistry study groups trying to decipher mathematical concepts, theories, and numbers. Studying technology, coding, and data science made me alternately furious, frustrated, and flummoxed. It was as if the textbooks were written in ancient, ­indecipherable code. But when I picked up Ulysses or examined the intricacies of the Battle of Gettysburg, the codes were already there, inside me. I could almost hear little “clicks” as the concepts fit into place like puzzle pieces. In love with the magic of words, I chose English as a college major. My mandatory senior project was a thick volume of short stories, painstakingly edited with the help of my advisor, a poet and writer whose mind worked like mine did.
The university required a ­committee of professors to assess my final work, one of whom needed to be from an alternate area of study. A biomed professor was named to my committee. I spent a full year on the manuscript—and the final version represented hundreds of hours of work. Every word had been scrutinized. After a grueling but invigorating oral defense, the committee declared my work a success and we walked together out of Cochran Hall into the dark April night. I held the bound manuscript close to me, proud, inspired by the potential of ideas, words, and stories. I dreamed of how I’d use it later—perhaps for publication, perhaps as a foundation for a novel, a screenplay, or a series of songs. Then the biomed professor looked over at me, his eyebrows raised. “Well, you certainly got away with something,” he said.
I stared at him.
“Don’t worry,” he continued. “While you write your little stories, you have classmates learning real things and doing real work. You can marry one of them, maybe? That’s the only way you’ll end up rich.”
Back in my apartment, I put my first book at the bottom of a box I was packing for my post-graduation move. I haven’t opened it since.

Preserving Humanities in a STEM-Centric Culture

Science and mathematics, computer science, AI, data analytics, finance, information systems, engineering, cyber security, programming—thank heavens for these fields and for the people who are in them. As our world becomes more connected by the day, a STEM-based career will constantly evolve, providing an exciting and ever-changing professional landscape. STEM jobs are still being developed, and skilled employees will likely remain in high demand for employers.
But the intense celebration of STEM pathways has created a culture in which social workers, historians, writers, and philosophers are paid less—indeed, valued less—than engineers, programmers, and developers. As evidenced by the biomed professor (“your little stories,” he said) and others like him, there are societal misperceptions that it’s easier to get As in humanities courses than STEM courses (Fischer, 2022). A friend of mine, a freelance writer, regularly hears comments from people she meets that reflect this mindset. “Must be nice to sit around and write all day,” they say, or “Writing? For, like, your job?” Even the internet holds this belief—a quick Google search of “easiest majors” creates long lists of liberal arts degrees, with nary a science nor math major in sight.
But the perceptions are not accurate. As with anything, difficulty corresponds with effort exerted. The earning and awarding of grades are complicated and often subjective. High-level literature, psychology, and philosophy courses are rigorous and intense. Even salary comparisons are more nuanced than they first appear because gender pay gaps and notable wage disparities reveal much deeper pay inequities than can be attributed to a college major (Ruggeri, 2019).

What would it mean, and how would it feel, if we had a generation with less education in history, art, language, and social sciences?

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But I’m not here to argue that STEM is a better path or humanities is a better path. I’m here to propose that we need both, and our students should know that both paths are necessary for our society to be richly ­balanced. What would it mean, and how would it feel, if we had a generation with less ­education in history, art, ­language, and social sciences?
Humanities majors provide perspective on a broad array of subjects, and they develop skills in analysis, philosophy, ethics, critical thinking, and understanding others (Velarde, 2020). They tell our stories through art, literature, song, and film. As such, they help us remain grounded in our own humanity. If we lose the value and ability to tell our own stories, we may not pass on the contributions and experiences of those who have come before us. We need our museums, our conservatories, our poetry slams, our gigs and jams, our concerts and ­concertos, our craftsmen, our gardeners, our musicians and decorators, our gamers and cinematographers, our potters and fashionistas.
It’s also important to note that there are excellent jobs for humanities majors. Employers need writers, readers, researchers, and philosophers, and there is a strong job market for these skills. Moreover, and notably, workers with humanities degrees are just as happy in their careers as those who majored in engineering and business (Rix, 2023).

Keeping All Doors Open

STEM is trending. It’s popular. But I’m worried about a bigger risk: If we focus too intently on lifting and promoting the study of STEM, we will suffer two losses.
The first loss is an immediate one—students like Anaa with an affinity and passion for humanities might be taken down a path that doesn’t celebrate their inherent skills and voices. The second loss comes with the creation of an entire generation, maybe more, raised under the assumption that studying humanities has less value and does not provide the reputation of a STEM major—and career.
As school leaders, as teachers, as people who have influence on the students in our classrooms, let’s keep all the doors open and celebrated so students can find the path best for them—and for a balanced future society of thinkers, doers, and creators. There is room enough for us all.
References

Fischer, A. (2022). Your humanities degree is worth it. The Pitt News.

Heller, N. (2023, February 27). The end of the English major. The New Yorker.

Rix, K. (2023, October 6). Why majoring in the humanities can be a great career move. U.S. News & World Report.

Ruggeri, A. (2019, April 1). Why ‘worthless’ humanities degrees may set you up for life. BBC.

Velarde, J. (2020, January 5). STEM vs. humanities: Do what you love. STEMcadia.

Jen Schwanke, EdD, is a longtime educator who has taught or led at all levels. She is the author of three previous books: You're the Principal! Now What?, The Principal ReBoot, and The Teacher's Principal. She has written for Educational Leadership Magazine, Choice Literacy, Education Week Teacher, Principal, and Principal Navigator.

Dr. Schwanke is a cohost of the popular "Principal Matters" podcast and has presented at conferences for ASCD, NAESP, Battelle for Kids, RRCNA, and various state and local education organizations. She has provided professional development to various districts in the areas of school climate, personnel, and instructional leadership. An adjunct graduate instructor in educational administration, Dr. Schwanke currently serves as a deputy superintendent in Ohio.

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