The 21st century has been one of many births and many deaths — of great people, inventions, ideas. In the midst of all this hearty celebration and deep mourning, however, our world has turned a blind eye to an incredibly insidious, ongoing cultural carnage: the eradication of the humanities.
Recently, a strange dichotomy between technology and the humanities has become cemented into popular imagination. From college campuses to the workforce at large, Americans have overwhelmingly come to believe in this imaginary divide — that one is either a STEM-person, or an arts-one. Simply put, the sciences and arts are largely seen as incompatible. Unfortunately, in the age of automation, this divide is more than just odd or misguided: it’s downright dangerous. Indeed, in 21st-century hubs of technology such as Silicon Valley, this mindset can rapidly devolve from one of a misguided dichotomy to an attitude of general contempt for anything non-technological. In other words, in a culture that idyllically reveres technological innovation, it is all too easy to start seeing the arts not just as a counterweight to the sciences, but as altogether counterproductive. And it shows. As New York Times writer Patricia Cohen reports, there is an alarmingly growing camp of “elected officials who want to nudge students away from the humanities and toward more job-friendly subjects like electrical engineering.” For example, in 2016, then-Kentucky governor Matt Bevin explicitly said, “[t]here will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French literature majors, there just will.”
For eighteen years, I grew up in Silicon Valley, this global capital of entrepreneurship and technology — raised by entrepreneurs and engineers, minutes away from the world’s largest tech giants, and immersed in a culture that lauds innovation above all. Only recently did I begin to notice the subtle yet powerful way in which generations of Silicon Valley kids are inculcated into this technopositivist mindset, into this belief in an imaginary divide. It starts in schools that subtly push us to be successful future tech founders (“the next Mark Zuckerberg,” as if that were something to ever aspire to…), while silently painting the humanities as nothing more than a mere hobby (because who could ever make a living off of literature!?). It grows deeper at home, in the dinner-table talk of parents who are all aflutter discussing the latest Intel semifinalists while paying no heed to the Scholastic Arts winners. It even seeps into everyday conversation, where people never fail to reason that, since technology has penetrated every sector of life, not pursuing computer science is essentially choosing unemployment in advance.
To be clear, I am not faulting any of the individual people who perpetuate this attitude. I am faulting the institutions which appear to have brainwashed places like Silicon Valley into this mindset. For, just like that, a whole generation of incredible engineers is raised — engineers who eventually enter leadership roles in the industry, holding on to this school-age distaste for history, literature, and social studies. And then, we wonder why engineers accidentally create facial recognition algorithms that don’t recognize black people as well. We wonder why our bathrooms have “racist soap dispensers.” We wonder why women remain such an overwhelming minority in the tech industry. Simply, the student who grows up indoctrinated with this aversion to the lessons of history and literature someday becomes the engineer with no conception of racial biases, algorithmic fairness, or the importance of diversity.
In short, technology has become our era’s newest mode of age-old oppression. And, in my opinion, to begin to address this issue, we must destroy this ridiculous tech-arts dichotomy in popular culture and re-endow the study of arts with unique, inviolable value.
To be clear, I am in no way claiming that an engineering student who takes one philosophy class miraculously becomes a fair developer. Such band-aid-style solutions are careless and lackluster. As Paul Musgrave explains in his Washington Post article entitled How Not to Fix Silicon Valley, “reading the ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ won’t actually make anyone more ethical….Asking professors to shoulder the burden of fixing STEM’s problems isn’t a panacea that would absolve all other institutions of their responsibilities.”
Rather, the antidote to this mindset must be expansive. It has to cover parental mindsets about future careers, elementary and middle school curricula, community norms, as well as university degree requirements. From early on, schools and career counselors must highlight humanities-based majors careers in the eyes of parents, so as to normalize them. For students, there must be more opportunities to excel in the arts, and such excellence should be equally celebrated in school communities. For every middle-school Java camp, there must also be a history program; for every hackathon, a literature convention. More comprehensive humanities instruction is also necessary, beginning in elementary school. And, as Musgrave points out, teaching only the “traditional pale, male and stale canon” will not cut it. Education, from a young age, must include writers of color, various gender identities, and marginalized backgrounds. That is the art with the power to effect change.
Luckily for us, the eradication of the humanities is not complete yet. There is still time to breathe life back into these powerful, necessary, and rich ways of thinking and existing in the world. We must — because to breathe life back into the humanities is to breathe life back into our humanity itself. And, that’s a rebirth worth celebrating.