BUT WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH THAT??
Any English major – from those who actually gritted out 4+ years of theory and close reading, to those “lucky” enough to have stemmed their humanities urge by becoming a supposedly in-demand science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) student instead – has inevitably heard this passive-aggressive question disguised as an honest inquiry. Really, it deserves every pixel of the “mocking Spongebob” meme:
Public contempt for the humanities – and the corrollary of equally public, and thereby visibly embarrassing, adulation for the STEM fields – has been an unmistakable trait of how Americans see education for my entire life. Oh noez, English and Art History don’t teach you “practical” “skills”! We need more chemists and computer programmers!! You know, “skilled” workers!!
The entire STEM/skills discourse – I think I’ll just call it STEMills for short, to try and capture the inherent logic of STEM boosters who envision colleges and universities primarily as sleeker diploma mills, from which students can emerge (having paid dearly along the way) with a sort of certificate of “skills” that translates 1-to-1 into workplace responsiblities – emerged in the shadow of the Great Recession and the ascendant power of Silicon Valley. Rather than confront the reality of Wall Street having destroyed people’s livelihoods and upturned global politics, numreous myths emerged about how:
-There just weren’t enough skilled workers out there; that’s why it was so hard to find a job. (False; if anything, STEM degree holders are in oversupply).
-STEMills would put struggling graduates and more experienced workers ahead of their humanities-focused peers. (False; earnings for humanities major usually catch up by age 40).
-Higher education shouldn’t be wasting its time on “useless” majors such as English. (False; the humanities are enormous money-makers for institutions! They subsidize everything else).
STEMills discourse is propaganda. It posits:
- Only “technical” (read: relating to STEMills) knowledge is of any value.
- Relatedly, jobs are mostly about applying specific “technical” skills, rather than knowing how to interact with other people (which is what they’re really about; yes, even the STEMmiest job).
- Said “technical” domain develops mechanically, or perhaps “naturally” is the better word, outside of politics or culture; we can but acquiesce to what it “wants,” whether that’s faster speeds and feeds in devices or a more convenient experience for customers.
- To meet those demands, we need a lot of (cheap) workers. Therefore, higher education is obligated to train students for industry, toward the implicit goal of lowering industry’s labor costs by creating a glut of STEMills graduates.
These are all ideological assumptions, and they’re incoherent. For example, we have the capitalist drive to lower labor costs (more STEMills graduates!!) juxtaposed with the preregoative to destroy humanities programs that are low-cost, high-margin blockbusters for universities.
Adam Kotsko has helped square this circle better than I can:
“Why kill inexpensive programs that often serve as profit-centers while doubling down on the huge capital investments associated with STEM? The answer is that the health of individual institutions is a subordinate concern, at best, for the business interests who set the agenda for U.S. higher education—as evidenced by the fact that so many institutions are perpetually on the verge of failing even as aggregate demand for higher education has never been higher. In addition to the benefits of STEM fields over liberal arts programs already mentioned, the hegemony of STEM creates a situation where colleges and universities are more dependent on major donations, which corporations and wealthy individuals are obviously in the best position to provide.”
To build on Kotkso’s point, the drive to STEMify higher education and society is also a drive to increase inequality. The interests of wealthy donors become preeminent, and that means a dominant ideology under which “good” degrees are mostly ones that serve, rather than question, the goals of capital. Students in the “wrong” fields face the prospect of massive debt with career prospects that have been limited not by any natural law of supply and demand, but by ideological constraints. David Walsh, a postdoc at UVA, has summed up this point well in regard to the history major in particular:
STEMills degrees aren’t inherently more practical than humanities one, nor are they even in every case more profitable, despite the intense ideological war waged against them. There are numerous humanities majors – including yours truly – who have highly remunerative jobs, and not just in fields that map perfectly to what we studied. I acquired all of my knowledge of computer science and electrical engineering outside of formal education, and so did the friend who helped me land a pivotal role a decade ago. Moreover, the writing chops I acquired in a graduate gender studies class ended up transforming how I constructed narratives and used words, vastly improving how I wrote about topics of all kinds – including “technical” ones like software. Knowledge acquisition isn’t always linear; everything you learn in school doesn’t map perfectly to something in the real world, and sometimes the most important capacities are honed somewhere else and under circumstances that didn’t seem important at the time. This very blog, for instnace, which I started mostly as a platform from which to talk about video games, was instrumental in getting me a job at a marketing firm.
But anyway, as Walsh emphasizes, history and the rest of the humanities are now coded as a liberal field eager to question entrenched power, making them the polar opposite of the more politically digestible – for the current ruling class, at least – STEMills fields. Going down the humanities route doesn’t doom one to unemployment and high debt – though it definitley felt that way in 2011 for me! – but it does mean fighting an ideological struggle against every variant of the “But what are you going to do with that?” crowd, from your annoying distant relatives to skeptical employers. What’s worse, the people who complain about the uselessness of non-STEMills knowledge continue to profit immensely from the humanities.
Facebook recently changed its main company name to Meta and has become fixated on the concept of a metaverse, which is kind of hard to explain clearly (and hence why I’m skeptical of its eventual utility). But the metaverse is an idea from fiction – from the pen of lowly geography major Neal Stephenson’s novel “Snow Crash,” in fact. Keanu Reeves had something to say about this recently:
So much of current Silicon Valley/tech ambition is just trying to literalize the work of humanities nerds:
-The metaverse and NFTs are straight out of Stephenson. The ubiquitous Microsoft Teams meetings that a work-related metaverse might eventually entail were predicted by David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.”
-Mars exploration – one of the most impractical endeavors imaginable – are just extensions of a sci-fi lineage going back to H.G. Wells, a journalist who got his start reading Thomas More and Plato.
-Algorithmic “on this day” memories and Spotify playlists that try to include only “good vibes” music were predicted far in advance by Rana Dasgupta’s “Canterbury Tales”-inspired novel, “Tokyo Cancelled.”
-Space travel and “futurstic” vehicles and devices often turn to Star Trek and Star Wars for inspiration; these properties were not the products of grizzled STEM majors, but of police officer and television writer Gene Roddenberry and film student George Lucas, respectively.
It’s also worth noting that many of thse works were dystopias, especially “Snow Crash” and “Infinite Jest.” So our STEMills overlords are trying to recreate, literally, the worst of all worlds. And they’re doing so by chasing the visions of works of fiction, not following some clear-cut line of scientific progress. Meanwhile, the social conditions that enable the pursuit of technological innovation in the first place are not delivered from on high or determined by some scientific fact of nature – they were built over centuries by people, from ideas drawn from every corner of human knowledge, including – gasp – the humanities. Good luck creating an iPhone, much less a Mars rover, in a society without direct government support, open immigration, and a baseline of social harmony – not to mention money-making, subsidy-providing humanities programs at virtually every college and university.
Eight years (!!) ago, I was already exhausted with the spectacle of STEMills acolytes boasting about the “future” and talking about the worthlessness of the humanities, even as they themselves couldn’t see that same “future” without relying on works of literature:
“By “the future,” commentators usually mean “a reality corresponding to some writer or creative artist’s widely disseminated vision,” which shows the odd poverty of their own imagination as well as the degree to which they often underestimate the power of creative artists/humanities types to drive technological evolution. But can human ingenuity really aspire to nothing more than the realization of a particular flight of fancy? Should we congratulate ourselves for bringing to life the technology from a reality that doesn’t exist?”
So yes, what ever will I or millions of other do with our English degrees – probably helping to prop up the STEMills charade for many more years. It’s such an American notion, of the strong, rugged, self-sufficient individual – or in this instance, the STEMills industrial complex – who in reality is just part of the same humanistic world as everyone else.