For an ever-changing world, which academic focus is the right one?
By Stephen Hinds-Day: Culture Columnist
The realm of academia is a gladiatorial battlefield. The atmosphere is dense, and the palladium is ablaze with the fiery competitiveness of the academic subjects; each fighting ferociously to prove themselves “relevant” and “popular” in a world that continues to evolve.
Dominating the arena, currently, are the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). Degrees and professions in areas such as Computer Science, Business and Psychology have been gaining popularity for decades now, and currently constitute most positions within the top 10 degree choices worldwide.
But it seems this powerful growth serves as a “stark contrast to what’s been occurring in several humanities subjects”, because disciplines like Philosophy, English Literature and Psychoanalysis have taken a disconcertingly large fall from popularity.
A good way to illustrate this would be to consider HESA’s 2020 Higher Education Student Statistics report for the UK. Between 2016-2019, Historical and Philosophical studies saw a drop of over 3,000 in their already faltering numbers of just over 80,000. Computer science, however, saw an increase of over 13,000 to accommodate for almost 115,000 students. The powerhouse, Biological Sciences, only grew in strength and currently stands at almost 250,000.
Aspirations to build a career within the humanities sector has somewhat diminished within the students of the 21st century, and in the absence of this desire sprouts an ambition to build a career within a sector that offers a future filled with uncompromised opportunity and hefty pay checks. A future undoubtedly provided by STEM-related subjects.
But once upon a time, the humanities were regarded as wholly integral to the academic world. U.S undergraduate data from the 1960s show the number of humanities degrees obtained to be almost double what it is now. So the question is why, and where, did this rapid decline originate from.
One abundantly clear and viable discrepancy has already been mentioned; career prospect. There is a growing understanding of career opportunities within sectors like Art or Philosophy to be both limited and void of colour. “One either teaches the subject or practices it”. But is this more of a misconception than an understanding?
A 2017 report from the AAAS (American Academy of Arts and Sciences) argued that job satisfaction amongst professionals within the humanities is largely positive and strong in numbers. Whilst the pay figures were still marginally below the $60,000 U.S average, compared to professions in Engineering which tallies an average of $82,000 annually, the satisfaction rate was still considered very strong in presence.
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Of course, where one is positioned in this particular argument depends upon the incentive they hold for their own future. If money takes precedence, enjoyment and satisfaction will come secondary in their making of career choice; and vice versa. This is one example of why individual mentality on a social scale is also a determinant factor that needs to be considered.
The contemporary society we find ourselves in today is entombed within a labyrinth of distractions. With the rise of the internet came a wave of technological advancements, epitomised by consumerism and the smart phone, which now dominates an extensive amount of our attention and energy on a daily basis. As a result, a detachment, not only from our environment, but from our self, has manifested in the younger generation.
This technocracy has also influenced the way in which we learn, especially for the university students of 2020/21 who are spending the majority of their academic year learning from a computer screen. But the humanities, like the liberal arts, existed long before “the technologically oversaturated educational environments of the moment”. It gave an educational experience free from distractions, and seeped in the iridescent colour of existentialism. So naturally imbedded in its power is its ability to facilitate for its students the subjective and personally developmental experience of learning that numbers and algorithms fail to achieve.
It is precisely because of this unique ability that the humanities are an invaluable and indispensable component of the educational system. It isn’t simply that they introduce students to fundamental concepts and historical works that should, in essence, be studied for their own brilliance. It is also that they “grapple with complex moral issues, the complexities and intricacies of humanity.”
Coming to understand one’s self and the world around them enacts an integral role in the development of critical thinking and empathy – traits that are still seen as very desirable by administrative and political professions.
Perhaps the way forward to a future of survival and revitalised relevancy lies within the academic realm’s capacity to replace the detrimental with the conducive. To replace the divisive chasm that currently separates the humanities from its scientific counterparts, with an interdisciplinary and collaborative opportunity that will enhance the irrefutably promising relationship – “the crisis of the humanities is a chance to put disciplines to work in a new way”, say English professors Clifford Siskin and William Warner.
Trying to survive in a world dominated by STEM subjects requires the humanities to measure up against the impermeable and irreducible nature of its opponents. Whilst this is achievable, it is also important to remember that thinking of the latter as “exclusively as useful—effectively, as tools—ultimately undermines it”. The humanities have been there from the very beginning, and hopefully, they will be there until the very end.
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