In Defense of the Arts and Humanities

Every day, my mom, dad, and grandparents wore a white coat, blue mask, and black stethoscope to work. Growing up, hospital wards were my playground; prescription pads were my coloring books. Everyone expected I would become Dr. Joaquin Labio, M.D. Disease fighter. Organ fixer. Life saver.

Yet in ninth grade, I fell in love with my history class. In eleventh grade, my most meaningful work came out of my English class. This semester, my favorite class involves graphic design.

Since then, my parents have accepted my status as the family’s academic black sheep — the sole arts and humanities lover amidst a sea of STEM devotees. Yet from time to time, they still express some skepticism about my intellectual pursuits.

“What jobs can you get with that?”

“As long as you’re financially stable.”

“You should take Economics too! It seems practical.”

For students planning to major in the arts and humanities, this is an all-too-common occurrence. Our daily workload is deemed minimal because we don’t spend our afternoons staring at test tubes or sifting through swarms of code. Our aspirations are branded as too naive and idealistic — “Good luck on unemployment,” teases the latest round of STEM student jokes on 5C memes’ pages.

However, the stigma against the arts and humanities does not stem from their perceived inferiority. Rather, it is because these programs lack significant institutional support — especially in comparison to STEM fields.

The disparity begins as early as primary school. During my formative years at a Filipino school, students who were adept at science and math were rewarded with slots in advanced classes and participation in out-of-school competitions. This further honed their skills and encouraged participation in these areas. In contrast, there were no additional resources for students with an affinity for languages or the humanities. Similarly, art was taught for only forty minutes a week.

Consequently, young students are conditioned to believe that STEM is synonymous with success, relegating the arts and humanities to mere hobbies and leisurely pursuits.

This is further compounded by rigorous standardized testing culture. In order for students to score well, high school curricula is designed to emphasize quantitative and formulaic skills, often at the expense of “creative” subjects — the arts, literature and humanities. In effect, undergraduate STEM programs are designed for students who possess high proficiency in these fields, whereas arts and humanities programs field those who have not received as much training.

Ultimately, this contributes to the perception that the arts and humanities are less rigorous than STEM. If this notion is indeed true, then it is only because our education system has been structured in that manner.

Consequently, there has been a decline in humanities enrollment since the 1970s – from 17% of all degrees in 1967, to 7% in 2011.  To further compound this, President Trump has threatened to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities.

The death of the arts and humanities is imminent.

Let me get one thing straight: I don’t blame STEM students for this phenomenon. I deeply respect STEM students’ intelligence and drive — especially that of my own mother, who is a woman of color in a STEM field. I also acknowledge that due to the growth of the technological sector, enrollment in STEM will naturally increase.

Perhaps, the true problem lies in society’s capitalist perception of education.  We are told to study in order to find a job — to become a financially-secure individual and a productive member of society — we must pursue an economically valuable career in the field of science and technology. Yet in doing so, we sacrifice self-autonomy and personal happiness in the name of money and productivity. The political establishment conditions us into becoming doctors, engineers, or even lawyers — for these high-income professions keep America’s economic machine up and running.

Conversely, the government and its business interests feel they cannot profit off the arts and humanities. In fact, they are probably viewed as threatening; many arts and humanities courses espouse social justice principles, which creates an atmosphere of dissent and defiance. Truly, the arts and humanities allow us to empathize. To understand. To empower.

In essence, this is why the arts and humanities are severely underfunded.

Knowledge is power, and they don’t want us to be too powerful.

Ultimately, we must reclaim our agency over our education — the classes we take, the books we read, and the discourse we engage in should all be determined by us. We need to put our own desires first, and break free from a system that has been designed to profit off our intelligence and hard work.

So if you’re passionate about how the human body works, then by all means, go attend medical school. If you want to be a French major, then take a semester abroad in Paris.

The choice is yours, and only yours.

Jolo Labio PO '20 is from Manila, Philippines. Catch him every Monday-Thursday at 7:59 AM, furiously sprinting to his 8 a.m. at Mason.