Humanities vs. STEM



I studied English at university. My son intends to study engineering. My career path was indirect. This recent Workopolis post shows that engineering is one of the top five degree choices for landing a job in your field:

  • Human Resources (88 per cent)
  • Engineering (90 per cent)
  • Computer Science (91 per cent)
  • Pharmacy (94 per cent)
  • Nursing (97 per cent)

Engineering also has the top starting average salary out of school, at $76,000 (which presumably justifies the twice-as-high tuition cost of the program – see my last post). A Maclean’s article from 2011 shows that the bottom three paying degrees two years after graduation are (descending order): humanities ($38,407), theology ($35,000), applied and fine arts ($34,653). The average is $49,469, and engineering sits at $60,548.

The English vs. engineering debate in my house clearly echoes the recent humanities vs. STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) debate that has raged recently. In 2009 President Obama launched the “Educate to Innovate” campaign to encourage STEM education to improve the ranking of US students in these subjects. The emphasis on STEM subjects, coupled with news of the decline in enrolment in the humanities, has led to a lot of online teeth gnashing by arts apologists (several examples: Move over, Stem: why the world needs humanities graduates; The Major Divide: Humanities vs. STEM Majors).

Let me advance a couple of arguments in favour of a humanities degree. One is that it teaches students to analyze and think critically about the world in a big-picture way that is different from STEM students – to be intellectually curious. Another argument: my English degree was good training for case studies when I did my MBA: read the case, devise an argument, collect proof to support the argument, then express logically and coherently. The engineers in the program, on the other hand (a surprising large percentage, about a third of the class) wanted to know what the “correct” answer was.

Another line of defence is that, over the long haul, arts grads narrow the wage and employment rate gap compared to professional program grads (although that often means having a grad degree as well), even if they don’t overtake them. (See Liberal Arts Grads Win Long-Term, which reports on the study Liberal Arts Degrees and Their Value in the Employment Market.) The article goes on to say:

…the report also drives home the fact that there’s one area where humanities and social sciences majors have everyone beat: meeting employers’ desires and expectations. Employers consistently say they want to hire people who have a broad knowledge base and can work together to solve problems, debate, communicate and think critically, the report notes – all skills that liberal arts programs aggressively, and perhaps uniquely, strive to teach.

I did not have the math skills to study engineering, and, over the course of my career, I have regretted not having better math-based analytical tools which would have helped me do my job better. And just because my son wants to be an engineer does not mean he is not capable of being intellectually curious. Where do readers line up on this topic – practical degrees like engineering with a clear payoff, or arts degrees that encourage broad knowledge and critical thought but with a less direct path to employment and riches? Feel free to comment.

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1 Response to Humanities vs. STEM

  1. lisat2785 says:

    I find I often wish I’d pursued something related to STEM. When I was still in high school, I decided to pursue art because I liked enjoyed it. What I didn’t really realize was what I’d be giving up by not pursuing a path or career that is grounded on logic and problem solving. I feel like I am unchalleneged and mentally not stimulated, and that perhaps I’ve wasted my potential and career by pursuing art. But who knows? If I had followed a STEM career path, I may well be thinking that I had wasted my artistic talent as well.


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