Student Op-Ed: ‘At war with itself’: Studying humanities at UC Berkeley

August 31, 2023

Walking into my senior capstone course for the English major, I was a third-year student surrounded mostly by seniors headed out the door. Many people take these capstone courses in their final semester, but I took mine for English earlier to make room for a sociology thesis later.

My mind lives to create — so this expediting didn’t surprise me.

The professor for my capstone course had that same earnestness: It was evident in the way he would walk into class and immediately write from memory entire paragraphs of quotes. His writing seemed too slow for the speed with which his mind recalled entire narratives, characters and their experiences. But every word he wrote was paired with a knowing smile.

This feeling — the one that propels us to explore humanness and let what we find recreate us — can sometimes get minimized at a monumental institution like UC Berkeley. And that’s ironically true for students pursuing humanities, arts and social sciences.

I know that UC Berkeley is consistently ranked number one for its English and sociology programs, but to declare in these majors simply for a ranking is misguided, especially when others tend to chalk them up to dead ends in making money. While I’m looking forward to fulfilling these majors’ requirements and moving forward to pursue law, I recognize the way a conversation shifts if I mention English and sociology without hinting at a more “profitable” profession.

So it’s understandable when first-year students worry about foregoing a STEM major to pursue the education they actually want. And it’s legitimate for fourth-year students to panic that the humanities major they chose will prove to be too creative, and therefore too nugatory.

I worry people won’t take the time to understand humanities, arts and social sciences as cornerstones for all sides of life.

Because the reality is that STEM seems to dictate our careers, our livelihoods and therefore our academics as well. Without these disciplines, I can’t imagine how any of us would exist. But without humanities, arts and social sciences, I don’t think our chances of existence would be any higher.

There are undeniably many draw factors to pursuing STEM, as well as many people who have genuinely found their calling in these fields. And when I talk to someone who thinks like a biologist or software engineer, I tap into perspectives my mind doesn’t always pursue — and often find myself better for it.

I still can’t help but wonder if STEM makes it just as easy for its scholars to see through a humanities perspective as well.

UC Berkeley does a wonderful job of bringing together all these brilliant minds in a fascinating ensemble of innovation and creation. Yet reflection from UC Berkeley’s first chancellor Clark Kerr seems to remain true: “The university is so many things to so many different people that it must, of necessity, be partially at war with itself.”

When it comes down to funds and finances, an argument surely has been made for prioritizing majors that tend to yield profitable careers. And if Kerr was correct, then prioritizing one field puts certain parts of the university “at war” with others.

So why did I side with the humanities, arts and social sciences in an institution where most of the popular majors fall under STEM?

For starters, my strengths don’t exist in formulas or laboratories. Unlike my dad who majored in the field, I’m also not going to suddenly become an engineer. While my partner has begun teaching me some coding, software engineer doesn’t seem to be a title I will take on at the moment either.

I have found myself instead in the business of people, and the humanities, arts and social sciences know a thing or two about that.

But in this “war” Kerr proposed we are in, it isn’t necessarily about what you like or don’t like (and I’m sure many people with established careers they dread sadly know that full well). In war, you don’t fight with your weaknesses. You fight with your strengths.

That’s why I don’t doubt that taking heavily writing-based classes is the right move (if I’m writing this, then somehow I also haven’t completely burned out from writing yet). I don’t question if dancing for an audience in Zellerbach Hall is a waste of my extracurricular time. And I don’t wonder if my majors will take me to the places I need to be (at least not every day).

When you’re on the non-STEM side at a STEM-heavy place, you learn to work that much harder for what you want. What I want just so happens to be where my strengths also are — and where I find myself with a knowing smile.

The Daily Californian