The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We’re way too obsessed with pushing science and math on our kids.

Elementary science student using plastic atom model educational toy. Steve Debenport/ iStock

When I was a child, I wanted to be a scientist. For a school project, I grew my own bread mold and dressed up as Alexander Fleming. I read about Marie Curie’s travails with the enthusiastic fandom that most girls dedicate to movie stars or singers. Microbiology, entomology, neuroscience, medicine—all beckoned with promises of discoveries to be made, fundamental truth hiding behind a microscope or a tricky equation.

Then, it all came to an end.

In seventh grade, I read Lawrence Krauss’s book Atom. The book followed a single atom from the days of the Big Bang to present. Krauss concluded by saying that he was composed entirely of atoms, and that upon his death, these atoms would be recombined into other objects. This passage was apparently intended to uplift, but I found it troubling. What was the purpose of everything if it all came down to mechanical interactions of particles and cells—what was the point of living, of doing anything at all?

Those of us who cherish the humanities know well the disappointment our math and science teachers express when we choose to “squander” our bright young minds. In high school, when I confessed to a former science teacher that I had decided to major in music, her face fell. “Emily,” she said, distraught, “what happened to science?”

It is commonly claimed that STEM majors are the “most valuable” — value being defined as immediate job offers and high earnings. Articles promoting STEM have a clear focus: jobs and money. College is increasingly viewed as a form of vocational training, useful only for teaching the quantitative skills that our data-obsessed society demands.

The current shrill insistence that young people study STEM is well-intentioned, but short-sighted. Our data-obsessed society demands that education consist only of measurable skills. It is no surprise that this quantitative mind-set favors math and science, which express themselves in the language of numbers.

But defenders of the humanities have long recognized that the study of history, literature, art and language develop other skills that are critical for students’ success. With their focus on careful reading and analysis of texts, humanities foster clear communication, both in speaking and in writing.

In an increasingly global world, there are many questions that don’t have certain answers, such as what is ethical and what it means to live a good life. In Educational Leadership, David Ferrero summarizes humanities perfectly: They are subjects dedicated to the development of “reflective citizens, wise leaders, and good persons.”

And yet none of these arguments address the most basic reason why humanities matter. The impulse to wonder why we are here and what it means to live and die—as well as the related instinct to communicate this through essays, music, and paintings—is inexplicable and yet undeniably human, common to all cultures across the globe. To deny the intrinsic value of such activities is to deny a fundamental feature of what it is to be a person.

I decided to spend my college days studying music and literature. I composed a string quartet and studied changes of key in Schubert. I grappled with the verbal intricacies of Woolf and Joyce. Humanities courses taught me to analyze, listen and write, to appreciate beauty and traverse the depths of the human mind. Contrary to friends’ predictions that I would end up unemployed, I earned a rewarding job at a university library. My life has been enriched by attending concerts and reading novels. I have made forays into writing fiction, a challenge as exciting and intellectually stimulating as any I have ever faced.

In over-emphasizing STEM, we run the risk of defunding and eventually losing the fields that make sense of our subjective experiences. We must train scientists and engineers, but we cannot forget to also nurture future poets, artists, actors and musicians. Theirs is the work that speaks of immeasurable truths: that our moral choices signify; that we are greater than our material bodies; that our short lives matter, and our art, and our love.