Oftentimes, a parent’s worst nightmare is hearing that their kid wants to pursue the humanities. The first thought that floods into the parent’s head is an image of their own child struggling to find a job and being faced with immense amounts of college debt from a “worthless” degree. This nightmare has even manifested into a decline of the humanities, as Forbes points out.  Broadly speaking, the repulsion of pursuing the humanities does not stem from a hatred of the subject matter, but rather the financial instability the humanities are often tied to. 

My parents – even grandparents – were no exception to this universal nightmare. Once I got accepted into the science and business high school instead of the fine arts high school in New Haven, I found this as an opportunity to listen to my family’s requests and pursue a job in the science field. While I have a profound appreciation for engineers and healthcare professionals as I prepare to graduate, I simply can not undertake their duties. I’ve chosen to pursue the so-called nightmarish path. Although I have increasingly become more content with STEM, it could not amount to my authentic passion for the humanities. From learning the correct strumming pattern of a song to engaging in philosophical debates with peers – you name any humanities endeavor, I probably fell in love with it right away. 

As a collective society, we’ve seemed to come to terms with the notion that humanities essentially pays less than STEM, but there is still a lingering question: Why?

To me, the devalue of humanities as an academic discipline and the financial disparity tied to it share the same root: capitalism. Today, there are two paths that humanities majors must choose. Behind the first door is the devastating tradeoff of giving up the dream of pursuing purely the humanities for financial stability. The latter option is the other devastating tradeoff of being paid less than their STEM counterparts

Alyssa Guiang, a political science major and international studies minor at University of Albany, talked about her own interaction with this tradeoff: “I value the intuitive side of humanity and this field of work focuses on that, so I sacrificed the sense of job security I would’ve had in the STEM field.” 

Capitalism has instilled the belief STEM’s labor proves to be more productive than humanities, claiming STEM provides all the necessities in life. But, as Kianna Ortiz, an Anthropology major at NYU, pointed out, “Jobs in humanities provide just as many necessities to people such as education, mental health services, and trust within the community.” This economic philosophy fails to see the necessity of establishing community building, engaging with ideas proposed by past political thinkers, critically analyzing the status quo and finding ways to make it safer for marginalized groups. Instead it values STEM’s labor more for the physicality of the products – like new technologies or medicines – while the humanities does not produce products as material as STEM. Since STEM’s labor is more tangible and oftentimes not highly accessible to the public without a literal price to pay, it makes it more valuable underneath capitalism.

Our capitalist society fails to conceptualize the vitality of the knowledge provided by the humanities. Mishkind offered, “The entrepreneurial model is self-exploitation: if you don’t succeed, you have yourself to blame…Success comes through innovation and efficient production, both central to STEM. When this thinking takes over the humanities, it becomes demonstrating how your work adds value.” As a result, humanities majors, pressured by how capitalism values STEM’s labor exponentially more, start to internalize this concept of making their work more profitable, as Mishkind said, start to skew away from the purpose of the humanities: gain insight of the world. 

I want to clarify that my resolution is to not assert that the humanities is superior to STEM, but rather equal. I see the profound impact in discovering breakthroughs in environmental science or saving a life with medical research. Both humanities and STEM, although different, provide necessities for society. Yet, both are also pawns in capitalism. While the humanities are reduced in capitalism, people who are passionate about STEM have to face the sad reality: witnessing the commodification of their labor. As Joy Wang, a physics undergrad and current Yale Political Science PhD student, pointed out, “There is a question of: Who owns the intellectual property of what scientific researchers, international ones in particular, produce? Oftentimes it is not their own property…it is a particularly acute situation of international researchers doing work that will then get sold back to their countries of origin for a profit.”

Instead, my resolution is for society to see both humanities and STEM as equal disciplines, even vital to one another. As Wang said, “Oftentimes if you are in the scientific research field, you are thinking about the questions of how do I solve this scientific problem, but questions of how your research gets used and who benefits from it are philosophical, political questions that also need to be answered.” Although I firmly believe that women and Black, Indigenous, and other people of color deserve an equal chance in STEM as their privileged counterparts, I believe that we must firstly confront the capitalism ingrained within the field. In doing so, it’ll allow for any marginalized group to be free from the same system that has continued to oppress them.