Don’t Be Afraid to Break from the STEM

It’s easy to spot them on campus. They’re the ones with laptops attached to their bodies like an extra limb, walking to class on Friday morning through the remains of last night’s party. Semi-permanent lines from lab goggles mark their faces like battle scars. You can’t ever ask them to hang out, because they’ll say, “I can’t. I have lab.” 

Oh, science majors. They’re like a different species of college student.

There’s a definite separation between the sciences and the humanities here. This distinction is natural, but it reflects a trend in our way of thinking that disturbs me. It’s something I admit I’ve been guilty of—the almost snobbish way science majors regard those with “easier” majors. I know firsthand that it’s usually born from the indignation that friends taking no science classes have weekends that practically start on Wednesday night while you have morning class every day, but that doesn’t make it any less upsetting.

Everyone knows that the current job market has a high demand for workers with degrees in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and that majoring in something like German Studies is a bit of a risk when it comes to job stability. In fact, this attitude is drilled into our heads as we grow up, especially during the time when we’re supposed to figure out what we want to do with our lives. During my senior year, my physics teacher made sure to remind my class almost daily that if we didn’t go into science or engineering, we’d be stuck with a “useless” college major. “You want a job?” he’d say. “Go into science.”

Never mind that not everyone excels at the STEM fields or even enjoys them. Although I personally love science, it doesn’t make much sense to me to major in a field you don’t like or aren’t good at, especially if you have a passion elsewhere. And yet, young people are constantly pressured into these tracks. It’s not just pressure from teachers or parents, either. This pressure is—no exaggeration—being institutionalized. 

Take, for example, a Florida task force’s proposal to revamp the state’s university program. The proposed changes to its public university system would allow students majoring in high-demand fields, such as STEM fields, to pay less tuition than students majoring in areas like the humanities. This plan is supposed to generate more income for the state by making higher education easier for those who would help Florida’s economy grow.

Needless to say, that sucks for a lot of future college students. It’s not as if we need more discouragement from pursuing what we love or more pressure to choose something “practical.” This emphasis on what’s hot right now in the job market has an ugly side effect. The fields that don’t have enough dollar signs attached to their job descriptions tend to lose respect.

At a liberal arts college, that attitude doesn’t permeate as far. Yet, it’s present when your parents call to find out if you’ve come to your senses about majoring in fine arts, or when your relatives ask at Thanksgiving about when you’re going to choose a “real” major. The reality is that outside this bubble where all academic fields are respectable, a lot of what we study has been deemed not valuable by the public.

Luckily, it’s quite possible to enjoy what you do and to make a living at the same time. Despite the predominant way of thinking, we know better. A lot of us here getting a liberal arts education have realized that higher education isn’t just about the end result—a job—but also about gaining a broad foundation of knowledge and appreciation for various areas of learning. Facing the disapproval of those around you is difficult, but it’s worth it to be able to say you love what you do. Whether you’re into the current in-demand fields or not, there are all the resources you need here to succeed with any degree—or at least that’s what they advertise in the brochures.

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