Paula Krebs

Executive Director at Modern Language Association

Step Outside the Major, Please

Full krebs

Image: Spider web, Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Randy Robertson

It's easy to make a case for the value of STEM fields in a regional economy. Our region, like most in the state of Massachusetts, has a growing gap between degrees produced in STEM fields and jobs in medical and technical fields. Those jobs are on the increase, and the standard assumption seems to be that a student needs a STEM degree to fill them.

I'm not so sure about that.

During my 20 years as an English professor, I saw plenty of English majors find good jobs in health care, social work, public health, and information technology. Some of those students went to graduate school first, some of them learned on the job, and some went to grad school after some on-the-job training. What they all had in common was that they loved reading and writing (hence the English major) and they did not fear science.

The curriculum at my previous institution linked courses across disciplines, and many of my English majors took my course on “Empire, Race, and the Victorians” in conjunction with an introductory biology course aimed at science majors, “Evolution and Ecology.”

The biology instructor loved the fact that the top students in his class were often English majors, and I loved seeing how the science majors took to the literature in my course. Most of all, it was really fun to see the students, who were often in their first year of college, open up to both disciplines. They hadn't had time to get all walled up in their majors, and they liked seeing the connections between a lab on natural selection and the way a 19th-century poet talked about race. That is good liberal-arts education. It shows humanities and social-science majors the pleasures and value of learning math and science, and vice versa for math, science, business, and education majors.

What worries me is that the workforce-centered focus in my state, and across the nation, operates from two assumptions: (1) To work in the health care industry you need an undergraduate science degree, and (2) to work in information technology you have to major in computer science. I don’t believe either is true.

That English major I knew who now works in computer games? He wasn’t a fluke. His career was a natural outgrowth of his undergraduate studies when he was not afraid to take some computer-science courses and to stick with his passion for literature.

So I think we in the humanities and social sciences have a couple of public-relations chores.

First, we need to convince our students to find ways to connect their majors with science and mathematics. Philosophy majors, why not take some epidemiology to pair up with your medical ethics course? Anthropologists need an anatomy course. Why wouldn't historians want to take some geology or meteorology to help understand the natural world their subjects inhabited? Musicians really benefit from math and physics, but they're seldom required to take them. And how can anyone understand what's happening in relation to race and sexuality in the United States without history and political-science courses?

Humanities and social-science majors who take more than the minimum math and science courses are that much more employable -- not necessarily because their math and science skills qualify them for STEM jobs but because they are not intimidated by math or science. They know how to learn in a variety of areas, and they can convince employers of that.

When I taught at a liberal-arts college, getting students to make connections between disciplines was easier. It was the culture of the place, and it was what students had signed up for. The curriculum demanded that they link courses across the divisions of the college.

Now I'm at a regional comprehensive university, and it's a tougher sell to get students to see the value of building skills outside their majors. We have a general-education curriculum, of course, but there are fewer public opportunities to reinforce the importance of that curriculum in any kind of interactive way. That’s why I was pleased to get to speak to new students at the June orientation meetings this year about our core curriculum. It was difficult to determine to what extent the message got through, as I had an audience of more than 200 for each of six events. I walked around with a mic and asked a lot of questions aimed at getting them to understand what a liberal arts education is for: "Who here works out? Show us where your core is. That's right. And why is your core important?"

Students at my regional university arrive on the campus with a firm view of what they want to major in. They are convinced that a major is what gets you a job, and they want to take as many courses as possible in that major. And many faculty encourage that impulse, of course, which can work against the best interests of the students no matter what their discipline.

Humanities and social sciences students who avoid math and science will not be able fully to understand the world around them and will not be credible candidates for the many jobs in health care and information technology that are not actually technical jobs. Likewise, science and math students who don't actively seek out reading, writing, history, logic, and arts courses will the the worse off for their specialization. They'll be less valuable in the workplace, and it's our job to help them understand that.

I once got a job as an editor at a science magazine because I was an English major who had not been afraid to take science classes in college. Why would a hospital hire a public-relations person who had never shown an interest in health-related courses? Technology companies use anthropologists to help with product testing and marketing. Wouldn't those companies be more likely to hire an anthropology major who had taken a coding class or two than one with no computer-science cred?

And that's brings me to our second PR assignment. While we have to get our humanities and social-science majors to understand the value of embracing science and math, we also have to change the rhetoric about who gets jobs in health care and info tech. Hint: It’s not just STEM folks in those industries. If we work with employers to shift the way they talk about jobs and job qualifications, we can shift the public perception that only technical training produces employment. Employers need to lead that rhetorical charge, though -- the public will believe a hospital director before it trusts the word of a humanities and social sciences dean.

The more we can move the public conversation to see the value of an integrated, liberal-arts education, the more employers will see our graduates as well prepared for the workplace. And the better off our workplaces will be.

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