Liberal Arts vs STEM: It’s What You Know

A recent opinion column in the New York Times reiterated questions with which any student at a liberal arts college is intimately familiar—are enough people studying science, technology, engineering, and math? Why are so few women and people of color graduating with degrees in those subjects? And based on significantly greater employment opportunities and salary growth in STEM fields, will the disparity in degree holders result in even greater societal inequality?

Yet the author, Charles M. Blow—a columnist whom I respect and read with relish—never seemed to consider that it’s not just the phrase on the resume that matters, but what the graduate actually knows. A liberal arts degree does not indicate total ignorance of how a computer, fracking, or the economy works. Nor does it mean that the graduate is missing out on some vital knowledge. In fact, they have something very important to offer.

I was raised by an engineer and a journalist/nonpracticing-lawyer. I was raised to love reading and, although certain subjects are not my forte, that does not mean that I hated math or science. In fact, throughout primary and secondary school I found that I enjoyed those subjects—when I was focused on explaining my results or thinking about an experiment in the context of a famous theory.

For the past four years my name has been followed by the words “double major in International Studies and Russian,” social science and humanities. Although I’ve had my share of angst over the validity of studying 20th century Russian literature while other people learn managerial decision making, as certain professors can attest, I have found that my education has been well-rounded and already enabled me to work in a variety of environments.

I am not a passive recipient of education, however; what I learned, I sought out. It is every student’s responsibility to seek out knowledge, not just coasting, in their classes. For the lab science requirement I took Computer Science I and II. It was hard, I cried, I sat in the lab at night; it brought down my GPA (the horror!).

It was also fun and inspiring: when other people seem scared by computer science, I explain that it’s not about your MacBook that for some reason won’t shut off. It’s the realization that computers are logical, and if you can think through the way in which they work, you can tell them what to do. You are powerful. (This is probably why I know so many libertarian computer scientists.)

Because of this class, and many others like it, I have a visibly valuable background in a variety of subjects—including STEM. Simultaneously I have come to understand that all the STEM in the world is useless without context, that people need the ability to interpret data, to incorporate humanity because the world isn’t an assembly line. It’s important to have both sides of the education—STEM and humanities—and while STEM degrees might appear more readily translatable into a paycheck four months from now, some of the most successful people I know were liberal arts majors.

They worked hard. They sought knowledge. They had many privileges along the way, yes, but most importantly, they never decided they couldn’t enter the realm of business or physics or civil engineering.

That’s the real message I’d like to see Blow get across: an education is not an opportunity to wall yourself off in one field, but to realize that all the fields are located under the same sky.