STEM may be the hot career field, but don’t forget the humanities

There’s room for courses in English, history or a foreign language. The study of the humanities teaches one to analyze, understand and better navigate this strange, strange world we’ve created, one Chicago writer notes.

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Students walk through campus at the University of Illinois Chicago, hours after President Biden announced his long-awaited student loan relief plan on Aug. 24, 2022.

Students walk through campus at the University of Illinois Chicago, hours after President Biden announced his long-awaited student loan relief plan on Aug. 24, 2022.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times (file)

Schools will be letting out soon, or already have. Before long, it’ll be August, and classes will start at colleges and universities across the country. It’ll be time for the packing up of totes with clothes, computers and ideally, books. Young people will be thinking about life in the dorms, whether they will fit in with their peers, and maybe about what they will major in.

Picking a major can be somewhat problematic. Some students decide at the start of their academic pursuits and stay on the beam, while others will use their first two years to find the right degree program. I always thought that was best.

Others will change their majors several times, depending on their professors (those who cause one to dream or those who cause one to cringe); their parents (“Art History!? Never!”); or their own whims (“Um-like, whatever”).

As for myself, before deciding on English (19th- and 20th-century American literature) when I was a college student, I thought about becoming an historian, an anthropologist or a field biologist.

Opinion bug

Opinion

There are often trends in college majors, at times fueled by media hype as much as by the actual demands of the workplace. In the mid-1980s, for instance, a degree in business was considered the hot major, even at small state colleges. While I was working on my master’s degree, my teaching duties included tutoring in my school’s writing center, where guys with acne and the writing skills of sixth graders bragged about how they would get MBAs and make big money. They felt sorry for me as an English major. And a teacher too.

Playing musical chairs

By the late ’80s and early ’90s, degrees in computer science were all the rage. And as with a business degree, students flocked to that newest of meal tickets. And as with the ‘80s, degrees in the humanities were seen as being out-of-step with the workplace.

But as 2000 neared, and as technology and its applications became more sophisticated, fewer people were needed to run it all, and corporations, universities too, began to slough off employees in their IT departments. I was concluding work on my Ph.D. then, and I saw it happen.

And so here we are in the second decade of the 21st century, and regarding higher education, the mantra has become, “STEM, STEM, STEM” — science, technology, engineering, mathematics. Students are seemingly abandoning the humanities for science and technology-heavy degrees, seeing them as the means of obtaining a high-paying job after graduation. Echoes of the 80s and ‘90s.

While the field of STEM is hot now, I don’t see it as being any more durable or stable than any other. Think back to the end of last year and the first five months of this one. High-tech firms have been eliminating ... high-tech jobs. And as technology continues to advance (here I’m thinking of so-called artificial intelligence, AI) once again, fewer people will be needed to perform the work. Admittedly, that’s just a hunch on my part.

Am I then advising you or someone you know not to pursue a degree and career in some STEM field? Of course not. Just know that after graduation, the job market may be saturated with a surfeit of people holding those degrees. College majors wax and then they wane. The universe runs on ironies.

And even if you pursue such a career path, there is nothing wrong with taking a minor in English, history or a foreign language. Or do a double major. The study of the humanities teaches one to analyze language, weigh information, shift through varying opinions, develop and defend arguments and understand human experiences beyond one’s own.

All are marketable skills no matter the field of endeavor. What you learn will deepen your own experiences and allow you to better navigate this strange, strange world we have created.

John Vukmirovich is a Chicago-area writer and book reviewer.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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