Cover image

Graphic by Tom Abi Samra

The Inferior Status of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

The view that STEM majors are somehow superior to the arts, humanities and social sciences is not only toxic, but also untrue.

Nov 25, 2018

17-year-old Kirthi Tripathi from the city of Kota in India was forced by her parents to pursue engineering as a path of study. As a result, she went through immense mental anguish, struggling between satisfying her parents’ wishes and pursing her own. Sometime during her last few months of senior year, Kirthi took the painful decision to jump from a five-story building as a result of the anxiety caused by the JEEan engineering admission examination. In her suicide note, she implored her mother to let her younger sister pursue whatever field she desires and to not put her through the same emotional turmoil that Kirthi experienced. She wrote that, “only what you love brings happiness and that is the only thing you can excel in.”
Kirthi is not alone. Statistics show that 32 percent of current undergraduate students are not pursuing the major they desire and that one of the most common reasons for this is pressure from either a parent, peer or authority figure.
“Not every kid wants to become an engineer,” said district collector Ravi Kumar, as a response to the increasing suicide rate of first-year engineering students in the Indian district of Rajasthan. The last straw, he says, was Kirthi’s suicide.
Further research indicates that 43 percent of students who committed suicide experienced some sort of academic pressure, with 92 percent of them taking their life in September — right at the start of their freshman year in university. Pressure to conform to the expectation of being a STEM major has a long history of having repercussions for students’ mental health and general well-being. According to School of Oriental and African Studies Lecturer Pamela Corey, being forced to pursue a major against your wishes could lead to depression, anxiety and low self esteem. The view that STEM majors are somehow superior to the arts, humanities and social sciences is not only toxic, but also untrue.
Many argue that a non-STEM degree is useless and bound to yield a life of unemployment and financial struggles, but the basis of this claim faded long ago. These majors actually give students skills, such as creative and innovative thinking, flexibility and writing and public speaking skills, that make them competitive in the job market. Even many leaders around the world have degrees in the arts and humanities. For example, 60 percent of the UK’s leaders in a range of sectors have degrees in the humanities, arts or social sciences, while only 15 percent studied a STEM field.
People also often claim that the humanities are a lot easier than STEM fields. What they fail to recognize is that these majors are not easier, but just require a different set of skills. Just because humanities majors often have less requirements and teach different content, this does not make them inferior.
As Yaman Garg, Class of 2022 and an engineering major, stated, “[Science students] spend time in class. [Humanities students] spend time doing tougher stuff and I would die if I had to do what you guys do on a daily basis. My roommate gave me this book and I couldn't read more than two lines. Who thinks it's easier? It's so tough; the readings are so dense and crowded. You never know if your essay is good or bad and you have to consistently work on being meticulous and detail-oriented. We in C++ for example do this and that and the answer either turns up right or wrong."
The humanities present us with great contributions. They help us step back and examine the world more analytically, giving us a break from the rush that technology has turned our lives into. They give us the gift of communication by teaching us languages and methods of self-expression. Without history, we cannot learn about the mistakes of the past. Without art, we would not be able to appreciate the beauty inspired by life and without language, we would not be able to communicate and grow.
It is time we stop considering anything outside STEM inferior and recognize that both fields are equal in their contribution to the world and the future.
Laila Maged is a contributing writer. Email her at
gazelle logo