Why STEM Majors Need to Respect the Humanities

As a biochemistry and English double major, I frequently interact with both STEM majors and humanities majors, and I love the unique experiences I have with both. However, more and more, I find myself interacting with STEM majors who express open condescension or disdain toward the humanities, attitudes I find deeply troubling at a time when these disciplines should be working hand-in-hand to address the world’s myriad of problems.   

One of the most illuminating experiences I had recently was during Chemistry class, when I overheard three students near me discussing a class they had to take in order to fulfill a humanities requirement; the class in question was an exploration of The Odyssey, one of many classics studies classes I eventually want to take in my college career. The crux of the conversation revolved around 1) how these students never read their required readings, 2) their indignation about their low grades, and 3) a worrying derision toward people who spend their lives studying niche subjects; the subject in question was the impact of gender in The Odyssey. I felt deeply angry as I overheard such a condescending conversation, but it also inspired a deep bafflement: how could people who put so much value on their logical thinking skills refuse to do the homework for the class and then simultaneously complain about their low grades? For them, humanities/arts classes should be “easy A classes,” undeserving of actual study. This attitude ultimately devalues the time and effort humanities majors and academics put into the subjects they are passionate about. In addition, it makes me wonder why students pursuing B.A.s in Chemistry think they are in a position to disrespect critically acclaimed authors of essays they refuse to read.

A similarly irritating experience I had was with one of my close friends, a pre-med Chemistry student. He was baffled that Theater Arts is a major offered at Penn, continuously refusing to believe people could devote their academic careers to studying and performing theater. He openly called the study of theater “stupid,” and as someone who loves musicals and is currently in two Theater Arts courses, it hurt me that he could so callously deride something I love so deeply.

It is as if because humanities subjects are subjective or opinion-based, they are no longer worth pursuing. I counter that it is their very subjectivity and the fact that they bring people together within discussion that makes them so important.  For me, discussing the themes in a play or novel and thinking about how artists throughout history have interpreted their world opens up ways for me to understand the world and people around me; being able to use your words to express emotion, to incite emotion in others is pure beauty and art — it is the very expression of love.

The most unfortunate aspect of this entire experience is that this attitude has been following me my entire life. Think about all the students you meet who say they don’t like reading, all of the high schoolers you had Honors English with who used SparkNotes for every single book they were assigned. This pervasive inability to put effort into creative subjects and lack of open-ended thinking that I see in STEM majors will ultimately be detrimental to their own quality of life.

I don’t mean to generalize STEM majors; I have met many who are passionate about the humanities subjects, simply find them daunting, or just don’t enjoy them. I am completely open to that point of view; everyone has their own preferences. It is the level of open disrespect I have noticed amongst some STEM majors in my own life that made me contemplate why these attitudes exist and what we can do to combat them. So far, I have observed that STEM majors devalue the art of writing, literary analysis, or general social study because they don’t see how it impacts the world, or they themselves have not been successful in those subjects. These are both incredibly petty reasons. Furthermore, what makes this such an important issue for me to pursue is that I almost never see this attitude among humanities students. Though they may say they don’t enjoy the sciences or they find them difficult, I have never heard an English major, or a Theater Arts major, or a History major openly mock the study of a science or talk about how unimportant it is.

Of course, the STEM fields are incredibly important and have made advances for the human race that we can observe all around us. However, the humanities are equally, if not more, impactful in the world and within the human experience. Science and math provide logical evidence for our observations of the world, but it is creative thought and emotion that changes how people think and understand the world. Charles Dickens was initially going to call A Christmas Carol “An Appeal to the People of England, on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child,” full of statistics about poverty and why they should give to the poor, but he thought A Christmas Carol would have a larger emotional impact; in doing so, in using the power of words and emotion and creative and critical thought, he wrote a classic story that hammers the importance of charity every single year and almost single-handedly reinvigorated Christmas.

The impact creative arts and critical theory have on the world, even if it is just one person studying the role of gender in one piece of literary work, is immeasurable. These pursuits are people’s lives’ work and they deserve respect instead of derision. Until STEM majors learn to see the humanities as subjects of equal importance and standing, they will be continually limiting their own understanding of the world, missing out on pursuing science with an open mind, and atrophying their own ability to think creatively, critically, and originally.

I think the relationship between STEM subjects and the arts/humanities can be best summed in in the classic, beloved film Dead Poets Society: “The human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”