Rooting for STEM at expense of arts?

Murali Kamma is managing editor of Khabar, a monthly magazine for the Indian-American community (

Since when did STEM become so cool that a Miss America could be made its brand ambassador?

Yes, I’m referring to Nina Davuluri, winner of the 2014 pageant. Given her degree in brain behavior and cognitive science, not to mention her academic awards, she’s certainly qualified to be a spokesperson for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

But I couldn’t help wondering — when did Glitzy embrace Geeky?

I’m not being facetious, for it’s indeed refreshing that a self-confessed “nerd” — who happens to be Indian-American — has become the new face of Miss America, reflecting a changing nation in more than one way.

Nevertheless, by being so focused on STEM, are we unnecessarily devaluing the liberal arts?

I feel a sense of déjà vu. While we overwhelmingly preferred STEM in India, it was far from popular among American students when I arrived here. I was amazed to discover that you could earn a graduate degree in creative writing.

How attitudes change over time. Now, even the elementary school near our house in Atlanta proudly displays a “STEM Certified” sign. Given the trends in employment, this emphasis is understandable. Sure, the MFA is still widely available — but the decline of liberal arts has been steep, particularly at the undergraduate level, going by a report put out by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences this year.

Between 1966 and 2010, the number of bachelor’s degrees in the humanities fell from 14 to 7 percent, with the drop accelerating in recent decades.

That’s a pity. We need the arts just as much as we need the sciences. For our globalized world, we need individuals who are culturally aware and empathetic, not just technically skilled. We need well-rounded citizens who can think critically and act responsibly. Liberal arts, anybody?

In India, if you were a middle-class youth, you seemed to have just two career options: engineering and medicine. To a large extent, that still seems true. Not everyone can be an engineer or a doctor, but it isn’t for lack of trying. Across India, there are 3,800 engineering institutes of varying quality that can absorb 1.7 million students annually. At the time of independence, in 1947, India had 38 engineering colleges that could accept 2,500 students.

This boom was fueled by the Nehruvian enthusiasm for science and technology. On our totem pole, if the heights of engineering/medicine eluded us, it was respectable (or at least acceptable) to aim for the science/commerce position at a lower level. We avoided the humanities/liberal arts, which remained at the bottom.

As a result, my undergraduate focus had been narrow, leaving gaps in my education. A lopsided dose of technology — or science, as in my case — can come at a cost in India. Cramming, and a fixation on make-or-break exams, impedes analytical thinking.

That’s why America came as a breath of fresh air. It meant freedom. I could explore new horizons, enlarge my mind. Ironically, despite this country’s prowess in science and technology, I didn’t associate it with STEM, primarily. What came to mind first was the great liberal arts tradition.

Does a bachelor’s degree in history imply a life of poverty? Of course not. A liberal arts degree can provide strong foundational values, instilling a lifelong love of learning, and it can prepare you well for the career specialization that follows. Besides, for those seeking assurance in these tough economic times, more practical minors are available for undergraduates. I recently read about a new minor in entrepreneurship and social enterprise.

At the same time, don’t we need historians, philosophers and musicians, just as we need engineers, physicians and scientists?