Over the weekend, I participated in Splash at Yale, a volunteer program where middle and high school students from the New England region come to the University to take an array of classes for a day, all taught by undergraduate students. I taught two seminar-style classes: “Plato’s Republic from Directed Studies” and “Recognizing Refugees in American Society” — both humanities courses that not only sought to introduce high school sophomores, juniors and seniors to the texts that I found fascinating, but also to provide them a space to think through those texts collaboratively.
For me, this was just one example of the importance of the humanities in tying people of different backgrounds together. At Yale, we must continue to invest in humanities courses even when the world around us seems to be doing the opposite.
For a total of 55 minutes per class, I was in awe of my students, whose zealous and intellectual curiosities extended far beyond what I would expect of students their age. Even in such a short amount of time, they sounded like college-level critical thinkers giving insightful contributions to our study of the human condition. Contemplating the philosopher’s place in political society with the allegory of the cave enthralled their minds. Comprehending the notion of gratefulness in Dina Nayeri’s “The Ungrateful Refugee” moved their hearts. It was beautiful not only to engage with, but also to learn from these students.
Now imagine if I were to tell them at the end of our enriching discussion that their desire to further explore these texts upon arrival to college, or any texts for that matter in any humanities course, lacked substantive value. Imagine if I were to evoke this passion for studying the human race in political philosophy or literature, and then snatch it away because research found that too much exploration was inessential to their future careers.
This is how it feels when popular magazine publications like Forbes or Business Insider list the most valuable majors — they almost always derive from STEM fields. This is how it feels to see U.S. News & World Report rank college majors based on their starting salaries. “Get the most out of your college degree,” reads the subtitle in bold, as if intellectual inquiry for its own sake is not a worthy objective. Is this how we view success in our society? By the measure of a dollar rather than the depth of one’s mind?
Luckily, at Yale there are policies in place to ensure that all students receive a liberal arts education and gain exposure to a variety of departments, including the humanities and STEM. But the attitude that the humanities — or even the so-called “soft” social sciences — are inferior to the “hard” sciences and quantitative reasoning courses is deeply ingrained into campus conversation.
In writing this article, I do not seek to discredit past and present efforts at Yale to strengthen the humanities as an equal counterpart to STEM fields. I don’t even wish to undermine the significance and intrinsic difficulty of the sciences — whose classes are often in high demand. STEM classes certainly deserve more resources toward additional class offerings and professorial access. However, society’s powerful perspective has often times shaped how Yale students judge their peers based on their chosen majors.
It is imperative that students on campus do not become heavily influenced by this condescending school of thought that regards the humanities as unchallenging relative to STEM. They may not strictly rely on empirical data or mathematical equations, but they do foster critical thinking and common ground among human beings. The humanities challenge us to think about our democracy, to fulfill our civic duty and to engage with ideas different from our own.
It’s okay to worry about the bright future ahead of you, but don’t allow your curiosity about humanity to lay dormant because of a dollar sign.
ZAPORAH PRICE is a first year in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .