Humanities vs STEM

Is this a confused science student, or a humanities student trying to do science? Or is it a dog?


First and foremost I’d like to say that I’m posting this on Monday night on purpose. I’ve decided to post every Monday night instead of Sunday. This works a lot better with my schedule.


If you have been to college (or perhaps even if you just know people who go to college), you probably have a sense that there is some sort of divide between those who study fields in the humanities and those who study STEM fields. “Humanities” encompasses fields such as classics, history, art, literature, languages, philosophy, etc. On the other hand, STEM fields (Science Technology Engineering Math) include things like…. science, engineering, and math. Surprise. There are some other fields which sort of skirt the boundary, such as economics and psychology (known as “soft sciences”), but we’ll just ignore them here. Who are we kidding – I’m an engineer! Throw them in with humanities too!


Within these two general groups of humanities and STEM fields, there of course exist truckloads of diversity. So, this begs the question – why would we even care about the differences between them if they are already diverse themselves? Why don’t we care about the differences between science and math, for instance? Or between history and art? Well, perhaps I do care about those, but it makes sense that I would care most about the differences which are most significant and most generalized, because getting more specific would mean putting in more time and effort into the analysis. So we’ll stick to the big sweeping generalizations here, and just look at the two biggest groups, humanities and STEM.


Before I add my own opinion, I’m going to talk about what I have observed and experienced at UC Berkeley / also through my friends who attend other universities. These are the big stereotypes:

– Humanities majors are stupider than STEM majors

– Humanities majors have less work to do, and therefore have more time to “party”

– STEM majors are nerds and are antisocial

– STEM majors are elitists and look down on humanities majors

– Humanities majors are more attractive than STEM majors

– Everyone except for engineers (which comprise a good deal of STEM demographics) will have a hard time getting a job and making money

There are of course others, but this list will do for now. I think everyone who has gone to college  is pretty familiar with this general concept.


Are these stereotypes wrong? Are they right? Why should we care about them?


It is hard to say what is really right and wrong. There are some who would denounce stereotypes – we were often taught in school or by parents that stereotypes are wrong, and that you shouldn’t judge people based on them. For the most part I agree with this, in the sense that I recognize that generalizations should not be applied to individuals if you want any shot of evaluating those individuals accurately. However, people who oppose generalizations in this way miss the point of them entirely. They are to be used when more specific information is either unavailable or difficult to obtain, and when the decision made about the individual is not particularly important. If you are hiring someone for a job, dismissing them based on a stereotype is probably a bad idea. If you are looking around a classroom wondering who will get the highest grade in the class, then stereotype the fuck out of them for all I care, because your judgement will make no difference to their success.


Personally, I love to judge people. I love to take incomplete information and form conclusions from it. Isn’t that what we do all of the time, anyways? When do we ever have complete information? At some point, you have to start making assumptions. Plus, judging people can be very fun and lead to great jokes and conversations.


With that, I return to my point. Stereotypes can never really be “right”, by definition, because they are meant to be wrong some of the time. If they were not wrong sometimes they would not be stereotypes, they would be facts. It is not a fact that asians get better grades than white people, it is a stereotype. This is because there exist some white people who get better grades than some asian people. However, if you could show that on average asians get better grades than white people, the stereotype is confirmed. In this way, stereotypes have the potential to be useful. 90% of the time, if I have a friend who is an engineer and a friend who studies psychology, I can tell you that the engineer has to work harder for his grade than the psychologist does for hers (see what I did there? Stereotypes are great). I can also tell you with confidence that the engineer will make more money in the future. Will this always be true? No. Does my judgement make any real difference? No.


The bottom line for me is not about how hard students have to work for their grade or how much money they make after college anyways. So what if engineers study more and make more money on average? Since none of these stereotypes are true in absolutes, they can always be broken one way or another. Let me be very deliberate about what this means because I think it’s important. For every characteristic, there is a general sense of whether it is a bad or good characteristic to have. I think we can safely say that being smart, hard working, sociable, attractive, successful, fun, kind, etc. are all positive characteristics. These things can be associated with stereotypes – you can say that STEM majors are smarter and harder working, and that humanities majors are more sociable, attractive, and kind. But, even if these stereotypes were true, even if on average you could predict what someone was like by sorting their field of study into one of two buckets, how useful is that to you, really? The fact that exceptions to the stereotype exist mean that you can have a friend who is extremely hot and successful who studies math, or a linguistics major roommate who is smarter than your engineer friends. A philosophy major might end up being a millionaire. Ok just kidding about that last one.


My point is that individuals are not so easily generalized as populations, and evaluations of individuals are probably going to be the most important to you. Generalizations and stereotypes ARE useful for some things, so as long as you understand when it makes sense to generalize and when it makes sense to evaluate based on other information, then you should be fine. Saying that stereotypes are wrong and should never be used is equally as close-minded as claiming that they are always correct.


I can say from personal experience at Berkeley that stereotypes are actually useful. They are real and can tell you a lot about a student body as a whole. No one will doubt you if you say that there are not many attractive female computer science students, because it’s true. Do they exist? Of course they do. Here’s my take on all of it: no matter what you study or what you choose to do with your life, you can earn my respect. I respect all of my friends for a lot of different reasons. I respect my engineer friends and my philosopher friends. My mathmetician friends and my businessmen friends. My biologist friends and my art historian friends. This is because they have distinguishing characteristics and admirable qualities that transcend (or even complement) their fields of study. And there’s nothing wrong with that – in fact I think it’s beautiful. Don’t ever decide that you don’t respect someone because of one aspect of them. People are not one dimensional.


This post was partially inspired by one Andrew Kooker, a student government candidate at UC Berkeley who made the fairly stupid decision to trash talk about his constituency in some poorly written facebook posts. I can’t say myself that I totally disagree with him – I agree, for instance, with his point that you should not complain about having an indeterminate financial future if you chose a field of study which is known to have few employment opportunities and low average starting salary. I’ve known people to do this and frankly I find their sense of entitlement annoying. However, there are many aspects of his posts that I disagree with (there were several others which appeared to lack coherence entirely), so many in fact that I’d rather not elaborate, and it is clear that this person has a very linear style of thinking and that he does not consider other perspectives. Whether or not you choose to use stereotypes is one thing – being close minded is another entirely. Be always open minded, always questioning. Never deal in absolutes. (see what I did there?)


Disclaimer: None of this means that I won’t make fun of you for being an ethnic studies major, regardless of how cool of a person you are. I reserve the right to make fun of you for anything I deem appropriate.

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