UCSD is Not a Polytechnic University

OpinionStaff Op-Ed

Christina Damse / The Triton.

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We’ve all heard the phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword.” It’s become a common idiomatic phrase in the English language, suggesting that we agree with it, even if only a little. It’s a hierarchical phrase, implying that one has to be better than the other. People often make the mistake of needing to rank things or debate if apples are better than oranges. We do the same with the Arts and Humanities department and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), but neglect to realize that they’re strengthened by each other.

At such a STEM heavy university, we often lose sight of the world outside labs and textbooks. Case in point, on October 12, 2016 there were only 268 Literature majors at UCSD. In contrast, there were 6,385 biology majors. I’m not a STEM major, but I think this math is right – that’s nearly 24 times as many.

Some people look at these numbers and think, “Well, duh. We’re a school known for STEM. What can you do with an English lit degree anyway?” The answer is, well, everything, but that’s a story that doesn’t get told when we’re too focused on one thing.

Actually, our lack of non-STEM majors is bad for STEM. Without arts and humanities, UCSD is nothing more than a polytechnic university without the ability to fully realize its own potential, and we, as UCSD, lack the soul so necessary in today’s climate.

I once had a professor argue to the class that the Arts and Humanities Department “puts the U in UCSD.” He said it so absurdly and with such emphasis on the letter ‘u’ that the class laughed, but the point he was making is true. If UCSD does not value its Arts and Humanities students, we cease to become a research university and become a polytechnic, defined as “a school or other institution in which instruction in technical subjects is given.”

The erosion of campus culture is a chief complaint among many Tritons, and it is often assumed that the arts and humanities are a vital part of making that campus culture. Arts and Humanities students at UCSD study life outside the microscope, so if you want a poetry jam, talk to a literature major. If you want an open mic night, talk to a music major. You want people who know what culture is – talk to an Arts and Humanities major. Tritons want a campus culture, and Arts and Humanities majors can help give UCSD that culture and give students a more fulfilled college experience.

My high school English teacher told us – and I’m paraphrasing – “If you want your students to sail the ocean, you don’t teach them the geometry of the boat or the physics of the sails, you teach them to yearn for the open sea.”

We cannot use science to create a better world if we don’t have the capacity to dream that better world into reality. This arts and humanities-exclusionary STEM forgets a key part of pedagogy, which is that we must teach our students how to fix problems that don’t exist yet. When a problem arises, I will go into the canon of literature and discover how society fixed it before and how we can do it again.  But I will also find a scientist who won’t find that answer only through the lens of a microscope.

One of my personal heroes is Jonas Salk, the La Jolla resident whose titular institute is in spitting distance of campus. He invented the polio vaccine and refused to patent it, missing out on an income of over a billion dollars, and then dedicated his life to HIV/AIDS research. He did so because of his belief that the polio vaccine should benefit all of human-kind and not just wealthy Americans who could afford it. In an age with people like Martin Shkreli (the CEO who raised the price of an AIDS drug because it profited him), I think most people wish we had more Jonas Salks instead. He saw the future that the arts and humanities can inspire in all of us.

I am not arguing that STEM is bad – it’s not. We need to invest in the very idea of discovery instead of ‘science’ with immediate benefits. We have to dream and discover to make those benefits a reality. Science or art as a binary will not cut it. We must value both.

We need Arts and Humanities students now more than ever, and we need scientific progress too. If you are a STEM major, there is no need to head to TritonLink and change your major. But let’s work toward creating a campus climate that appreciates non-STEM majors in the hope that we have more students declaring Arts and Humanities majors in the future. When you go to Career Services, ask for career fairs for non-STEM majors. Ask the admissions department to advertise our non-STEM majors to potential applicants. And if you’re a STEM major with some extra time on your class planner, pick up an Arts and Humanities minor. I promise it will make your microscope mightier.  

Ashley Awe is a contributing writer for The Triton.

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