The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

Bar Charts vs. Liberal Arts

Einstein and Shakespeare box each another. Illustration by Iris Chung

As Lauren Park ’25 made her course selections last March, she scrolled through the curriculum guide, seeing offerings like Slam! Spoken Word Poetry and Mass Entertainment in America and Principles of Engineering. Park chose an elective called Criminal Law: Current Events and Public Advocacy, because she thought it would be useful.

“It was very interesting to me,” Park said. “I don’t know if I want to pursue being a traditional lawyer, but I think that it would be useful information to have in the future. I feel like I could use that and intersect that with other interests I have.”

Park said when selecting courses, she tries to strike a balance of courses that she is interested in and that will help her in the future.

“I tend to overthink a lot of my classes, because I want the classes that I’m taking to be genuinely interesting to me and also balance that out with if it will be useful to me in the future, whether it’s just in life or as a professional career,” Park said.

Dean Sharon Cuseo said since the 2008 recession, she has seen a growing concern about students’ abilities to get a job post-graduation, which influences many to focus on pre-professional disciplines, like engineering or business. Since 1970, the number of business majors has gone from 115,396 to 391,375 for the 2020-2021 school year, more than a threefold increase, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The number of English majors over the same time period has declined by nearly half, from 63,914 to 35,762. On the other hand, biological and biomedical science majors have more than tripled.

The humanities, an area of study that dates back to Renaissance humanism, includes majors that focus on understanding the human condition and society, like English, history and philosophy, according to Encyclopedia Brittanica.

English Teacher Jocelyn Medawar said courses that deal with stories, like those in the humanities, are useful for communication and self expression skills.

“We’re a long way from saying that English isn’t one of the most valuable classes you can take, not just because of the command you gain over your own writing voice and your own speaking voice, but because you also get to know who you are ,” Medawar said. “For students who are attracted to reading,they’re getting an invaluable tool to sustain them when life throws them those curveballs.”

Yet the humanities are experiencing a steep decline in popularity as opposed to pre-professional and STEM majors, which have seen massive increases in enrollment.

Moreover, at the high school level , Dean Sharon Cuseo said she sees students specializing more in STEM fields than in humanities fields.

“If we look at how many people are doubling up in one subject, it’s almost always math and science that we see the doubling up in, and it’s understandable,” Cuseo said. “Economics [is] being taught as a math class, when, in fact, most colleges would see it as a social science class, and computer science [is] something that maybe everyone feels like they should have exposure to.”

Cuseo said she thinks students often feel pressure to narrow their focus earlier on in their academic career, but the dean team encourages students not to narrow their focus. She said she urges students to approach their schedules as a pyramid, emphasizing a broad, rather than specialized, base.

“A lot of times high school students, particularly Harvard-Westlake students, forget that they get to take classes in college,” Cuseo said. “So they come to us and they’re like, ‘I have to take three physics classes because I know I want to be an engineer’, and I am thinking, ‘do you realize you’re going to have four years of college where you will get to take even more in-depth courses?'”

History Department Chair Celia Goedde said many students and their families view a college degree as an investment, which is why they choose paths perceived as having more material outcomes, as opposed to the humanities.

“The pre-professional dominates,” Goedde said. “I think there are some students, and I’ve taught many of them in recent years, who are just interested in learning. They might have more practical plans as well, but they have their passions, and they’re going to pursue them. I just think it’s harder for students [and] for their families to swim against that tide.”

Dean Adam Howard said the perceived job security that comes with STEM and pre-professional focuses in higher education makes those disciplines more attractive to students when considering options for college experiences.

“Practicality is a big part of it,” Howard said. “There’s a tangible type of job that is waiting for you on the end, beyond college. Whether you go to grad school or not, you’re being taught towards some sort of discipline. [The] humanities [have] always leaned towards more of a renaissance spirit: I’m gonna learn a little bit more about how everything operates, how I relate to the world and then maybe go suss it out for myself. ”

Additionally, Howard said that higher price tags mean a learning for the sake of learning approach to education is no longer practical for many families.

“I do think that with the cost of education going up as much as it has, it’s a lot to say to somebody,’Hey, go spend four years trying to figure it out, you know, and then maybe throw some grad school in there,’” Howard said. “What’s the cost? What [are] the loans that then come after that? There is a sense that there is something waiting for me in the back end of this that I can go right into, and I can start to make some sort of really good income.”

Nilufer Mistry-Sheasby ’24 said she thinks high school students think about financial stability as it relates to college admissions, rather than future career.

“People are thinking about it from a more tangential perspective,” Mistry-Sheasby said. “I think people are thinking about college because of the financial stability and connections that it provides. Right now it’s more, ‘this class is going to be the thing that pushes my GPA up by three points, it’s going to be getting me the teacher’s letter of [recommendation] I want and then that’s going to get me to the dream school. And that’s going to get me to the dream job.’”

While starting salaries of STEM majors are, on average, higher than those of communications and humanities majors, starting salaries of those in communications and humanities are projected to have increased the most between 2022 and 2023, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Though practicality and income security play into certain students’ decisions, some also cite the recent technological and scientific climates when describing why they choose to focus on STEM fields.

Bjorn Walthers ’25 said technology’s prevalence in the modern world cultivated his interest in STEM.

“I have been doing robotics and been interested in technology my whole life, probably a lot due to the fact that, with the world right now, technology is the forefront of everything, and it interests me [to know] what’s going to happen in the future,” Walthers said.

Science Department Head Melody Lee said she thinks STEM is appealing to students due to a combination of the career opportunities and new innovations.

“There are a lot of more lucrative jobs in STEM, so that is one of the main reasons people gravitate towards it,” Lee said. “Also, because science and technology are growing so rapidly and are so close to the present generation, it is more enticing.”

Howard said that, while many perceive STEM educational backgrounds as essential to careers in technology, large firms like Google are also interested in hiring humanities students.

“There’re companies who actually are almost more inclined these days to hire humanities majors than they are computer scientists because they can find the programmers, [and] they can find the people who know how to input data,” Howard said. “It’s the humanities people that they’re sometimes looking at to be like, ‘What is our vision? How do we fit into this bigger world?’”

Lee said that, at prep schools generally, there is a trend toward increased specialization at the pre-college level.

“There is a slight shift for many top high schools to offer more specialized courses,” Lee said. “For example, with the schedule change, we have now shifted from [advanced placement] biology to two separate honors biology courses. Another example is that we offer organic chemistry, genetics and biotechnology, and human anatomy and physiology course[s]. Students are given the option to choose to zoom in on something that they are more passionate or interested in.”

Kate Beckerman ’25 said she wants to make a difference when she grows up, regardless of career, but feels that STEM fields have more potential to affect change.

“I think humanities are very important in order to understand the way that the world works on like a society level, but STEM is very focused on how [the world] will work on a physical level,” Beckerman said. “I don’t necessarily think majoring in English or history, without any extra [education] is going to have an active place in changing the world and making the world a better place. I think that is going to be more of a STEM thing because it’s time you’re actively making developments to advance the scientific world, which is inevitably going to [lead to] advance or decline.”

Medawar said the push for students to specialize earlier frequently prevents them from exploring classes that they might enjoy.

“There’s an idea that to get into whatever definition of a good college you have, you have to be this fully packaged person who’s pretty much already gone to college before you get there,” Medawar said. “That can be potentially damaging thinking for some students who are just still trying to figure it out, and college needs to be that place where they figure it out. To feel that you have to be this fully formed human being who already knows all their likes and dislikes really doesn’t leave room for surprise.”

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Zoe Goor, Assistant Features Editor

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