We all have heard them, the snarky remarks at non-STEM majors.
“Oh, you’re majoring in English? I hope you like working at McDonald’s.”
“You better like working at Starbucks because that’s what you’ll end up doing for being a music major.”
“A degree in philosophy prepares you to make sense of burger flipping at McDonald’s.”
“Psychology majors are fit for none but being cashiers at Walmart.”
These statements conceal two damaging sentiments: the banality of disparagement of non-STEM fields majors (does the disparagement extend to the fields themselves?), and the disdain to workers of jobs that are considered menial and monotonous, e.g. fast food worker, waiter/ess, cashier, etc — for some reason, baristas are not typically lumped into this category. These sentiments are not observed only in commoners. It’s heard from educated and high profile individuals. For example, Jeb Bush, who is running for the presidency of the US, recently made a statement that psychology and philosophy majors will end up working at Chick-Fil-A1. This is coming from a person who graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Latin American Studies.2
The perception and the main force behind these sentiments is that these fields are not beneficial to the society and/or not providing growth and money. They are nothing like engineering where you see them building cool gizmos every other day. They are not like physics, which has tight coupling with engineering. Chemistry and mathematics are also strongly connected to engineering. Geosciences are required for the oil industry, for which we have thirst for. It seems like everything revolves around engineering. Why? We shall come back to answer this question later in this piece, but first we need to define what roles in society can non-STEM majors fill.
What Are You For?
Most of the work of these individuals is hiding in plain sight. They are disadvantaged that way. The books and newspapers you read are mostly written, proofread, and/or edited by English major graduates. You like to visit museums? Those artistic and historic pieces you gawk at were curated by an art and/or history major. Sir Ken Robinson in his book Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative talks about one fellow who started college majoring in philosophy. After a few courses, he changed his major to art history. Later he got a job at an international auction house due his training in philosophy and knowledge of art, history, and ancient civilization.3
Historians dig below the surface of historical incidents, teach us what went right, teach us what went wrong, and provide guidance to not repeat the mistakes. When the “Right to be Forgotten” law was established in Europe, Google assembled a council made up of philosophers, historians, lawyers, among others to help them construct a policy on how should the law be executed and on what basis.4 Paul Bloom discussed in the Coursera course Moralities of Everyday Life how philosophers are involved in the self-driving car project at Google, working out problems such as the infamous trolley problem. Psychologists, sociologists, linguists, economists, anthropologists, and many others have broad contributions to our growth, whether as humans specifically or inhabitants of this world generally. If all fails, at least these people are to become educated voters who employ their knowledge in driving the arguments and shaping policies.
Now, is blindness to benefits the mere reason behind the disdain? I don’t think so. There is more to it than what is on the surface.
Immediate vs. Delayed Gratification
We all have heard of the infamous Stanford marshmallow experiment. Those who have never heard of it before can follow the link in the footnote.5
The benefits non-STEM fields provide vs. what engineering provides are akin to delayed vs immediate gratification in terms of the benefits they provide — mathematics and physics, especially theoretical physics, tend to be more abstract in what they provide. The difference between the fields of study and this analogy is that we, as consumers, are majorly seekers of immediate gratification. STEM provides immediate gratification, non-STEM provide delayed gratification. The skill of resisting the temptation of immediate gratification in favor of the better delayed gratification is not an individualistic skill; it’s also societal.6 We are almost always hungry for the next thing in technology, regardless of how prepared we are as a community. Engineering and natural sciences push technology forward at a fast pace and we keep absorbing it all. However, STEM cannot provide the culture that maintains and sustains itself with innovation. STEM creates the Internet, but psychology recognizes the phenomenon of internet addiction.
STEM and non-STEM are not mutually exclusive, rather they complement each other. STEM has an advantage because it is steps ahead of non-STEM. The latter cannot prepare an environment for the unknown, thus it requires STEM to head before it to create the environment, and by then it’s too late to prepare and non-STEM is left to merely study the pre/post-effects. This is a catch-22, aka chicken and egg problem.
The Case for Non-STEM
Making the case for non-STEM is not an easy feat. We are not talking about one homogenous space, like what STEM has. Perhaps it is time to address a particular decision in word-choice some of you might have noticed and wondered why it is so.
Throughout this piece, I have been mostly using non-STEM, as opposed to liberal arts or humanities. This is deliberate. While researching for this piece, I noticed that some sources lump the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, and math) with liberal arts, while others exclude them. As for humanities, many of what I have found don’t include the social sciences, which are important for this discussion.
A partial argument for non-stem was made in the previous section. The complement to that argument is this piece from a letter John Adams wrote to his wife: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My Sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”7
Nicely put, John Adams.
Ziyad Marar also has a good article on the matter and he is definitely putting it better than what I can do. Click here.
You Said Something About Fast Food Workers
The notion regarding fast food workers comes along with the notion of non-STEM students; thus, it must be discussed. I have heard and overheard people talking about fast food workers and cashiers at donut shops, or other stores for that matter, saying statements along the lines of “if they were any smarter, they wouldn’t be working here” or “you’re so stupid and that’s why you work here” when the unfortunate worker makes a mistake. Granted, we all get frustrated with client-facing employees and say “what an idiot” in the burst of frustration, but it’s the frustration talking and it’s in regard to the action that had just taken place and not at the person and how they come to assume the job.
They, client-facing employees, might not be innovating new cool technology or coming up with new theories of why children and adults behave a certain way at certain times, but they are still providing us services to make our lives easier. They fed some us who get hungry late at night and have no power or commodities to cook something on their own. They have to stand on their feet for 8 hours, and maybe some more, just so you and I can walk up to them, dump a basket-ful of items on the counter and have them ring up the total cost and bag each and every one of them. Some of them have to get up at 4am so they can make it to work just in time to make some food ready so you and I can grab a bite on our way to work in the morning while we’re in a hurry.
They might not be pushing the wheel of innovation higher up the hill, but they help those who are pushing. They help the society keep its spinning-wheels spinning. Perhaps they deserve more respect from us than we think they deserve.