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"Surely you're joking, Ms. Sarma!"

Devaluing the humanities and social sciences

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As a college student, I’ve become accustomed to people asking me what my major is or what I am studying. While this is a perfectly normal and acceptable question to ask, it has the potential to be a dreaded one for students, thanks to the reactions of the ones who ask it. 

For many people, there’s a hard-drawn line between the sciences and the humanities. On each side of that line, there are some gross stereotypes that dictate what it means to be on one side or the other. Hence, both positive and negative reactions ensue. 

I think a major problem that we don’t address is that the humanities are just as suitable a choice as the STEM fields. Thinking that women gravitate toward the social sciences or humanities because it’s easy is a flawed statement. It fuels ideas that women are incapable of studying ‘harder’ subjects, wrongly promotes the idea that the humanities subjects are easy, and supports the idea that a field is deemed easier when more women are present. 

One should understand that a woman can find psychology interesting and that is their calling. The decision is not a result of them being intimidated by STEM. We give women autonomy when we let them decide what field they want to pursue and by respecting it.

“When people ask me what my major is, I have a preplanned answer,” Sashi Govier, a sophomore studying psychology, said. “I feel like I have to defend that I’m a psychology major. I hear about STEM majors and their labs and their very busy schedules, and in contrast, the process for getting to psychology may seem easier. But I think if you’re a student who wants to reach your highest potential, it’s the same amount of work and effort irrespective of what your major is.”

This idea of having to defend one’s major in the social sciences or humanities transcends national borders. My cousin studies international relations at the London School of Economics, and always talks about how some of our relatives back in India hold the sciences to a high standard and regard those who study the arts as incapable of handling the sciences. Those who study the arts, including philosophy, political science, and literature, aren’t defined by the competence in their field but rather evaluated on the ‘science standard.’ Other countries aren’t immune to this mentality.

When I was working at the World Affairs Council of Oregon during the summer, I was fortunate enough to meet with some Youth Leaders from Afghanistan. One girl told me she hoped to pursue physics. She excitedly added that she had excelled in her exams, and that she received a 97. 

At first, I wasn’t sure about the significance of the exam score, but I later learned that one’s grade in the exam determines what subject they would pursue in college. If one scores above 90, they are put in the science track, and a score below that only guarantees a spot in the geography track. The hierarchy and the prestige of the subjects are predetermined once again, based again on biases and prejudices.

The best parallel to this at the UW would be the competitive major system. Some consider the majors that are competitive as prestigious while open programs might be seen as a backup or easy because of the system’s structure. The competitive major system unintentionally places a value on subjects. It always feels like we return to the exact same spot when it comes to discussing UW’s academics — the competitive major system.

Women face backlash for every decision they make at any given time. If we study science, we are told that we’re not good enough and that we only fill the diversity quota. If we pursue the humanities, it’s because we’re not smart enough to handle rigorous academics. It makes no sense to put an arbitrary value on areas of knowledge.

Somehow the presence of women in a field devalues the prestige, value, and image of it. We are so far from equality in all spectrums. One way we can assert our equality is by publicizing that studying humanities subjects is as prestigious and rigorous as the sciences. The world civilization’s edifice has been built upon the foundation of both humanities and sciences, and both men and women, who are equally competent and capable.

Reach writer Priya Sarma at Twitter: @ Priyayasarma

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