The Humanities Problem
The Humanities are systematically and consistently undervalued worldwide. Why is this, and why is it a problem?
It is undeniable that STEM subjects are many times more valued in today’s society than Humanities subjects are. Why is it that this is the case, and how does this affect the experience of students worldwide? I invite you to come along with me as I answer some of the most politically relevant questions today.
To start with — education is always somewhat symptomatic of the historical circumstances under which it exists. In the case of feudal times, the Catholic Church was the only form of education that most people had access to, and before the institution of Catholic schools as a tool of ideological reproduction, only the rich and noble had access to formal education, many times in the hands of private tutors. This was especially the case for mathematics and the sciences — art, historically, was an important tool for the class-climbing and upkeep of the poor; artisans were absolutely needed before the coming of industrialization, and in terms of drawers and painters, there was a high market for portraiture before photography was invented and made common. From tailors to rug-makers to basket weavers to carpenters to painters, there were many industries that always had a demand and thus a market. These many forms of art were trades crucial to the economic welfare of the poor, and they were all trades that were given respect. Since the oncoming of industrialization and globalization, many of these trades have been made useless, or, in the least, the market for art and artisanship has been reduced incredibly and made exclusive to the very rich, whilst bakers in supermarkets, tailors in factories, cooks (fast-food workers) and local carpenters are in the majority of cases not paid enough to live, and professions like pottery, blacksmithing, rug-making and basket-weaving have almost ceased to exist. Industrialization and the de-specialization of jobs have all but killed artisan trades.
Then, there is the art market. It is incredibly difficult to “make it”, and by that, I mean live as an artist. There is no longer a market for portraiture, or of rich noble patrons who could finance you. Not only are universities and art school expensive, but so is living, with the societal expectation to move out by the time you’re twenty, and the increasing in-walkability of cities, a guarantee of a high-paying profession becomes more and more necessary as rent and gas prices rise and minimum wage stalls. This effectively means that not only is art not a desirable industry to work in (and thus, it is not a desirable field to study), but it is also gatekept behind the ability to keep yourself afloat (and once again, by this I mean to live) whilst you study it. Essentially, art is no longer a tool for social climbing. Rather, in many places it is practically necessary for you to be rich so that you can study it. Further, the art market and high art world is small and exclusive to the extremely wealthy, which makes getting into it difficult for anyone who doesn’t have connections — funnily enough, the Venn diagram of people who have connections in the art world and of people who are rich looks much like a circle. That the art world is the playground of the rich is a truism believed in by most, and precisely because of that it is crucial to accent that this has not always been the case; in fact, it has been the exact opposite for most of humanity’s existence.
The reason the art world is the playground of the rich is not because art is for the rich, it is largely because of neoliberalism — the dominating ideology of modern times. Modern society is built around the concept of meritocracy, and beyond the usual problems with that, one often missed is that the most intrinsic aspect of a meritocracy is competition — to establish that one deserves more is to establish that another inherently deserves less, and with that foundation, competition is natural born. Some say that this isn’t the case — if the job market is a zero-sum game, then why are unemployment rates not higher? This is because the market for high-paying jobs is incredibly competitive, whereas in some places, low-paying jobs are plenty available; getting a high-paying job might not condemn another to unemployment, but it very much might force them to get a job that pays a poverty wage. This is an oversimplification of the issue, yes, (the tech and hospitality industries hold vastly different job markets, for example) but for less job-secure markets, this theory holds true, and in a rapidly-changing world with an unstable economy no job market is as secure as it seems. The thesis of neoliberalism, the one of competition being intrinsic and beneficial to a meritocratic market, is what the entirety of modern society is built around. Individuals are incentivised to act as their own enterprise; we network, we apply for jobs, we get interviewed and are asked to justify why we should be hired — why we are the best option out of all the ones competing, why we should be paid, and thus, why we should be able to live. “Why should we hire you?” is in essence the same as “Why do you deserve the right to continue living?”, or, at least, “Why do you deserve the right to live comfortably?”. When we answer this question, when we engage in this competition, and are forced to assert our own right to live, we are simultaneously forced to imply (or in the least accept) that others don’t deserve that same right, especially in a world where so many jobs are brutally undervalued and underpaid. That right to live comfortably granted by landing a well-paying job might be well-earned. One might’ve truly worked harder than others, and became more skilled than them at whatever skills the job requires. However, it is dishonest to not mention the fact that regardless of how much one might’ve deserved the job, the reasons they might’ve been accepted and others rejected for are multi-dimensional and subject to great bias. As hard as one worked, how many applicants were not properly considered for the position out of racist, sexist, or homophobic biases? Even if that number is just one, the competition could never have been fair in the first place. This faux-competition is one we are fated to participate in from birth, whether we suffer from or non-consensually benefit from it. We are all members of a system in which through the merit of existence, we are forced to participate in violence. This is the philosophy of neoliberalism, and as the dominant ideology, crucially, it is, like any other in the past, the ideology that our educational systems worldwide serve to reproduce.
This is because, with the dictatorship of meritocracy, competition becomes the founding principle of our education, as well. Our educational systems all of a sudden stop being about education, and rather, about the forming of the best possible worker. The problem is two-fold: students are forced to aim to become the best possible worker in a field with a guarantee of job security (logically, if they want to live), and inversely, schooling becomes about not only producing the best possible worker, but also about producing the best possible worker in a job-secure field, as every parent wishes for their child to live comfortably, and governments aim for their citizens to be able to do the same. As elaborated upon previously, with the death of artisanship and patronage, artistic fields become less job-secure, and as cost-of-living rises, the only people who can afford to take that risk are the rich. This isn’t the only reason that these fields are underpaid and less job-secure, however; in a neoliberal society wherein governments are also incentivized to act as enterprises, the markets most valued are those that produce the greatest GDP — these are the STEM fields.
There exists an incredibly perverse and common judgement that STEM fields are more valued and critically tested because they are necessarily harder than humanities fields. When dealing with this judgement, it is necessary to question why and by what standards the STEM fields are harder. The answer generally lies in our educational systems today — STEM fields are considered harder because they are more critically tested and taught, because they are more valued, not the other way around. To give more time to English or Arts classes is nearly unthinkable — how could we take more time away from the sciences and maths? When a class needs to be lost due to an assembly or event, which ones are on the chopping block? It’s never the STEM classes. They’re more content-heavy. But why is this the case? It’s not like there aren’t hundreds of English classics out there, tens of major philosophical branches, hundreds of years of politics, and fine art. STEM fields are more content-heavy because we’ve chosen them to be, and standardized English exams require keywords and essay structures rather than substantial critical analysis or thought. The other common misconception is that these subjects are harder because they are more materially grounded, that is, there is an obvious right and wrong, and because the knowledge relating to them is material. Rather, the fact that the STEM field is harder in school (something I certainly won’t contest) comes from that very misunderstanding — that since, in the Humanities, there is “no right and wrong”, that there is no discerning between the quality of analysis; that there is no “good and bad”. The fact that these fields are subjective does not mean that there is no way to “get it wrong”. The possible depth of analysis in the Humanities is incredible, and proven by the its depth in the higher academic world. There is very much discerning between deep and shallow analysis; simply put, there just isn’t much value given to genuinely deep analysis within today’s educational systems. This is because not only does schooling greatly more value the STEM fields over the Humanities, but because further, the educational system itself is built around that fact. The Humanities are taught in a strictly structured, “STEM-ified” way; we are taught formulas to critical thought, specific keywords to make sure to use, paragraph structures to memorise, and as long as these things are stuck to, no real substantial or deep intersectional thought is required to pass. Why should it be? Truly, in a neoliberal world, these subjects should be easier to pass so that more time can be given to the STEM field. This is whilst STEM subjects require great amounts of time and dedication to the memorisation and understanding of phenomena — there is real work that must go into studying and practicing for exams. Not only this, but students aren’t properly rewarded for making connections between different classes, or between their material and their day-to-day life, and this breeds out intersectional thought — we are taught to structure and separate knowledge as if its function is incredibly specific and non-applicable to the day-to-day.
Humanities fields might not lead to the most GDP growth, but they’d certainly lead to more happiness. Who doesn’t want better writers, directors, musicians, and politicians? They’re not going to come out of nowhere; they have to be made, for creative jobs are jobs like all others, and as much as we might mysticise artistic talent, it is no different from talent in any sport, trade, or STEM field.
We are stuck in this brutal cycle: our educational systems intrinsically reproduce neoliberal ideology; without realising it we are bred to actively and systemically devalue non-STEM subjects, and because of that, we don’t critically test and teach the Humanities, and with them, the capacity for critical thought and analysis, and because of that, we continue to devalue the Humanities. The neoliberalism of modern pedagogy is structural, and it is intrinsic, and it is dangerous, because as much as historically, education has always been a tool to reproduce the dominant ideology, it doesn’t have to be. There has been much pedagogical philosophy that goes against that, and for a long time, too — Paulo Freire was at it in the 60’s. Education should not be a tool for the market. It should be accessible and it should be liberating, and anyone who has gone through the meat grinder that is modern education should set out to change it. Learn to question the most seemingly obvious judgements in your mind, because regardless of who you are, you’ve been taught to do otherwise. There is equal potential depth to all fields, and if you don’t think so, really get down to why; I guarantee at some point you’ll find it that your presumptions are unbased in any reality, whether that be through logical leaps or personal biases. And if you can’t do that, I won’t blame you.
You were taught not to, after all.