In January came news that computer scientists and engineers again commanded the highest salaries right out of college in 2012. That news prompted fresh chorus of voices deriding degrees in “softer” subjects like English or art history as a waste of time and money. That’s unfortunate. We’re very big fans of efforts to get more young people into computers and engineering, but it makes no sense, none at all, to dismiss other whole disciplines in the process.
It is true that computer scientists and engineers (along with other STEM majors) have weathered the recent downturn pretty well. Not only did they get paid better than most, they tended to hold on to their jobs. Not every STEM worker has come through great recession unscathed, however. Our own research found that civil engineers, for example, faced tough odds as spending on infrastructure dried up. On balance, though, people in STEM fields had more opportunities than those who didn’t, and companies faced a shortage of STEM talent, even in lean times.
But that’s no reason to go on about “useless” or “worthless” majors. If everyone were dead set on being an engineer, we’d have a lot of unemployed engineers—and those who did find a job would work for nickels and dimes. By our own expansive definition, STEM jobs make up about 13 percent of all jobs. Although that percentage will grow in the coming years, that still leaves a big piece of the pie for non-STEM majors. Surely we have room for English, history, or (gasp) visual arts majors.
Those who scoff at the arts or humanities miss an important point: Arts and humanities majors can do quite well for themselves if they have strong STEM skills. A great writer can do well in marketing, but she had better understand data. A wonderful designer can help create killer apps, but he had better have a good grasp of technology. In fact, researchers at Georgetown found that the vast majority of jobs require STEM skills. The flip side of that argument is that a strong grounding in the arts and humanities can give people with STEM skills a real edge in the job market. Even Tom Friedman, that apostle of STEM skills, counseled engineering schools to offer more music.
So, if you’re going to major in the arts or humanities, all the power to you. But take advanced math. Learn how to program. Seek out skills that will help you carry your passions into the world of work.
The rest of us should stop sneering at visual art, French literature, or any other field that that seems impractical or arcane. Even engineers and computer scientists wouldn’t suffer from a bit of Manet or Molière.