Most writing is bad. Anyone who’s suffered through the dreaded peer editing session or seen the anguish on the face of an English teacher facing a tall stack of papers to grade knows this. Yet many people continue to think of the humanities, disciplines founded on writing, as easier than math and science.
It’s pointless, at the end of the day, to rank subjects by the effort they require. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and what’s easy to one person may seem impossible to another. But too often we do rank subjects, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects are consistently at the top of the list. The implication is that, because more people will get an A in an English or history class, the skills learned there are less valuable. This has led to an increasing focus away from humanities in the classroom, even as many students—and adults—struggle with basic writing and reading.
This is especially true in California, where approximately 20 percent of residents lack basic literacy skills, according the National Center for Education Statistics. In December, student advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that its educational system fails to address poor literacy rates and exacerbating the achievement gap.
“Public education was intended to be the ‘great equalizer’ in our democracy, enabling all children opportunity to pursue their dreams and better their circumstances. But in California it has become the ‘great unequalizer,’” Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney on the case, said. “Although denial of literacy is the great American tragedy, California is single handedly dragging down the nation despite the hard work and commitment of students, families and teachers.”
Considering the political upheaval of the last year, the humanities should emphasized more than ever. As fake news and punditry become dominant features of the media landscape, critical thinking skills and a working knowledge of civics and rhetoric grow in value. Yet Americans have proven themselves to have low media literacy, and are easily swayed by propaganda and conspiracy theories. Despite the relevance of these subjects, students who view writing heavy disciplines as fuzzy and less valuable than the cool objectivity of math and science classes. Students voicing this belief are often smart and capable. Humanities classes would benefit from them, and, perhaps more importantly, they would benefit from humanities classes.
As we choose which classes to take and look towards college, we are surrounded by the message that careers in STEM are the only viable option because they presumably pay better and are more employable. However, the value of an education extends beyond preparation for a career, and while the skills gained in writing and reading centric classes are sometimes intangible and harder to quantify, that does not negate them. The United States’ public education system exists in large part to prepare students to be diligent and effective citizens, and the functioning of democracy itself depends on the success of that mission. The critical thinking and contextual knowledge gained in from a strong foundation of humanities and social sciences.
Tam, however, provides far more opportunities for STEM leaning students, including a wider variety of electives and APs. In the mad rush to prioritize and pour resources into STEM education, we run the risk of leaving the humanities behind, a choice that hurts all students, be they die hard mathletes, poets, or something in between.