The recent surge in support for people, particularly women, in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, has been a long-awaited and inspiring development to watch unfold. However, in an age of increased value associated with STEM, the corresponding merit attached to studying humanities subjects has dwindled considerably.
Growing up in the South Asian subcontinent, the trajectory of my career has changed immensely, mirroring societal attitudes and my own understanding of them. Largely dictated by the idea that a humanities degree would hold no relevance, I tried my hand at the sciences in hopes of becoming a doctor.
Part of this decision came from an implicit desire to challenge myself and prove to myself and the society that believed so deeply that I was incapable of studying STEM that I was more than their definitions. Part of it came from my failure to understand that the humanities hold equal value to STEM, and that careers in the humanities are viable, despite what I had been told.
In the South Asian subcontinent, the disparity between the perceived importance of STEM and humanities is pronounced. Humanities subjects are largely viewed as what people turn to when they are incapable of studying STEM, rather than a choice that disciplined students actively make to study.
The social sciences, whose classification has long been debated, are merely seen as pseudo-STEM subjects that hold comparatively less importance than their scientifically classed counterparts. Subjects like psychology, for which the target audience is still limited in South Asia, are considered futile endeavours, and students are often discouraged from pursuing them.
Gender stereotypes in the subcontinent further emphasize the gap between the merits associated with the two. Women who choose to pursue careers in STEM have long been stifled by the debilitating and propagated belief that their gender puts them at a disadvantage, and those who choose to pursue careers in the humanities are seen as simply preparing to stay home.
Men aren’t exempt from these stereotypes, and often find themselves boxed into STEM due to the femininity associated with the humanities in South Asian countries. Few men tread the humanities path in fear of the harsh social attitudes toward it.
As someone whose interests fall predominantly in the humanities, I constantly need to defend my decision not to study STEM. International students like myself are even more likely to get an extension on their visas if they choose to be STEM majors.
International students’ need for validation sometimes manifests itself in a switch from the humanities fields into STEM fields. But the purpose of higher education is to embrace the freedom of pursuing something that excites the student.
We must eradicate the stigma associated with the humanities. The lack of value attached to the liberal arts is misplaced and fosters an environment of inequality between subject areas.
To expect a change in the entirety of the South Asian subcontinent is a tall order, but I do believe changes in certain policies like visa extensions could have a profound effect on how people view the humanities.
The ability to obtain a visa to continue or complete an education, or even to work, is a reflection of the security a field offers. The current policy serves as the preliminary indication that humanities will be less useful in one’s future.
Choosing to study the humanities does not prepare one for a life of futility, but rather for a life of fulfillment — that is the idea we need to propagate.
Ananya Saluja PO ’22 is from New Delhi, India. She recently cut her hair, expecting her life to change.