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Humanities matter, too

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MAY 26, 2017

Humanities majors are unequivocally one of the most underappreciated and undervalued groups of students on the UC Berkeley campus. I make this claim without feeling the need to justify it because anyone acclimatized to our campus community will know exactly what I am talking about. Even virtually, the UC Berkeley Memes For Edgy Teens Facebook page features regular memes about hardworking STEM students and their sluggish, party-loving humanities counterparts.

While I understand the effort put in by students of more technical subjects, I fail to understand why there’s an insistence not to say the same of all UC Berkeley students, regardless of major. After all, aren’t we all victims of the same cutthroat academic environment?

I started thinking about this topic after making my own switch from a STEM major (computer science) to humanities (public health) and observing people’s reactions change. I had known even before making the switch that UC Berkeley was victim to a false pretense surrounding majors; a culture of varying academic superiority not based on the value of our education, but the major we decide to choose. And the only way for me to explain that was through a breakdown of academic culture.

The Daily Californian published an article May 15 titled “A structure of division.” The report outlined how the division of Berkeley High School into five smaller learning communities has created an atmosphere of hostility directed toward students belonging in the three “easy” schools which have an arts and humanities focus. The divisive climate entails feelings that “evolve beyond pride into attitudes of superiority.”

Parents want their children to attend one of the two larger schools, often buying into existing stereotypes about the rigor of these schools. The article struck surprisingly close to home and led me into thinking about the origins of some of the attitudes existing on our own campus. Students at BHS talked about eroding “confidence,” especially for students of color who are a predominant part of the smaller, oft-critiqued learning communities.

On an even grander scale, former president Barack Obama proposed an additional $3.1 billion be allocated to STEM education in his 2014 budget. According to a report titled “The STEM crisis is a myth” printed in Spectrum — an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ magazine — however, the United States is producing more than enough STEM graduates to satisfy the demands of its workforce. There are 277,000 STEM vacancies in the country every year which can be filled by 11.8 million STEM degree holders.

Based on the report, and contrary to popular belief, the sciences are not in crisis. This begs the question — why does STEM education merit such a large chunk of the federal funding pie? According to the report, this is done to maintain an oversupply of workers, maintaining “a large pool from which they can pick the best and brightest,” controlling wages as a result. All this is happening at the expense of humanities.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report titled “The Heart of the Matter,” which reveals that federal research funding through the National Endowment for the Humanities has been reduced “disproportionately” in recent years. In fact, humanities was the only research field in which federal research spending decreased progressively over time.

One of the reasons I actually decided to write this column was a conversation I had while traveling back to my home country this summer. I met a guy named Varlik on my connecting flight to Istanbul. Varlik, a mechanical engineering major at Arizona State University, and I were seated next to each other and we started talking about our college experiences.

He explained to me his desire to get a degree and help in his family’s oil business. He said despite enjoying math, his decision to pursue an engineering major was influenced mostly by familial pressure. If it was up to Varlik, he would rather get a flying license and become a pilot. Our conversation helped me realize how much of an effect simple attitudes can have on people.

I want to make it clear that I am not trying to lift the banner for humanities or hail it as a superior force in academia. Nor am I trying to undermine the work done by STEM majors. Rather, my goal is to make people think how their actions can affect an entire field of academics. I want people to fund humanities like they do STEM, because humanities are valuable.

As Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin said in a 2011 op-ed while talking about the need to promote education in humanities,“In my position as CEO of a firm employing over 80,000 engineers, I can testify that most were excellent engineers,” he wrote. “But the factor that most distinguished those who advanced in the organization was the ability to think broadly and read and write clearly.”

Contact Azwar Shakeel at [email protected].

MAY 26, 2017