National Edition

Students leave poetry and paint for science and technology

Published: Monday, May 12 2014 4:00 a.m. MDT

Majoring in humanities may seem like a misstep in a tech-driven age, but experts argue otherwise.

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With the economy still prepping for a comeback, many college students are leaving the arts and humanities for a more “reliable” science or technology major.

“The debate over whether it’s worth [it] to major in humanities becomes louder during difficult economic times when many people, especially recent college graduates, are suffering,” Anthony P. Carnevale wrote for the Wall Street Journal.

With nearly half of recent grads unemployed or underemployed, students choose to rest on what seems safe and prevalent: technology and health care. This shift is justified by higher employment and pay rates for those who go into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

“Engineering and other technical majors provide education and training that link directly to relevant job skills, which makes the transition into the labor market easier,” Carnevale explained.

The government’s push for more STEM initiatives in schools and universities makes it hard to see past the promises of security, but critics say this can create long-term problems.

“There is the law of supply and demand,” Robert Matz said, adding his voice to the Wall Street Journal’s debate. “Blanket recommendations that college students study a STEM field are obviously self-defeating. If every student were to follow this advice, there would be too few jobs in STEM to support them.”

Another factor not often taken into consideration is the lasting significance of a liberal or fine arts degree, which benefits those majors in three predominate ways:

First, those who graduate in the humanities or social sciences are more likely to go on to graduate school, which narrows the wage gap by half.

Second, skills learned in the humanities hold a higher rate of transferability, which frequently translates into lauded technology fields.

Third, humanities majors really begin to reap benefits in middle age, whereas those who take on STEM fields can become irrelevant if they don’t stay actively engaged in new trends.

Apple’s most famous innovative mind, Steve Jobs, expressed a deep need technology fields hold for right-brained minds.

"It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough,” Jobs said at the launch of the iPad. "It's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing."

But life isn’t just about money. Most people want to find pleasure and fulfillment in what they do, and for many, that doesn’t include math and science.

“Find out what it is that [you] do out of a sense of enjoyment and challenge,” said Daniel Pink, author of "Whole New World: Why Right-Brainers will Rule the Future." “Not for the external rewards. Forget about those. Do what you want to do because you like it, because it’s fun, because it’s challenging and meaningful. That’s where success is found.”

When arguing in favor of a humanities degree, Carol Geary Schneider told the Wall Street Journal that the humanities provide for society what math and science cannot: humanity.

“The humanities include disciplines — history, religion, philosophy, cultural and comparative studies, languages, etc. — that are basic to democracy and indispensable to global and cross-cultural engagement,” Geary said. “Given the global challenges we face on all fronts — from social unrest to religious and cultural conflicts to basic challenges of development in all parts of the world — we need more people, not fewer, with a solid grounding in the humanities.”

EMAIL: nshepard@deseretnews.com TWITTER: @NicoleEShepard

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