Commentary: The Academic Divide

Students throughout campus recently took the State of the Academy, charting out their existence at Andover over the course of a hundred and twenty two multiple choice questions. After several pages of simple answers, they were confronted with one unexpected, yet deeply personal question: “Do you typically prefer STEM courses or humanities courses?” While many students may have answered this as quickly as their G.P.A. or class year, for others, the existence of this question forces us to examine how we define and divide ourselves.

For most students who were classified as “gifted’ at an early age, this question is nothing new. From the first day of preschool, there is a pressure to lean towards numbers or letters, picture books or worksheets. Extracurriculars, too, are separated into these categories, with the most popular clubs often leaning towards the polarities of STEM and humanities. In middle school, there is often a distinct separation between the theater kids, the artists, the computer geeks, and the math nerds. And as those kids grew older, their courses are more challenging and the narrative of their own intelligence more ingrained. By high school, this classification has become part of our identity.

Intertwining one’s sense of self with a concept this arbitrary and fluid is incredibly problematic. ‘Gifted’ children often end up choosing a path for much of their life without spending the time to fully explore themselves and their organic passions and interests. Kids are barely ready to choose a passion by college; in fact, between 20 to 50 percent of students enter college as “undecided,” and about 75 percent of students change majors at least once during their four years at a college, according to an article published in a Pennsylvania State journal.

There is also an inherent gender bias in this classification. Stereotypes lead girls to lean towards humanities, and the increasing lack of a gray area between the two reinforces the biases against women in STEM. The number of women majoring in math, computer science, and engineering has decreased substantially since 2008, and is continuing to go down, according to an article published by the American Council of Education. Refusing the labels of STEM and humanities would likely make many girls feel more comfortable pursuing the STEM fields. This would lead to higher percentages of female STEM majors, leading to a more inclusive workplace culture for the women who choose to work in these areas.

This categorization is not only very harmful, it’s also completely artificial. Students who aren’t identified as “gifted” during elementary or middle school tend to define themselves in other ways, such as the sport they play, or what specific subjects they’re interested in. This occurs because being “good at STEM” or “good at humanities” is simply the result of how difficult it is for you to understand the subject.

This outcome is affected by countless factors—your relationship with your teacher, your parents’ background in the subject, your socioeconomic status, and, in some small sense, your predisposition to the subject. For students who don’t have these advantages in either field, the difficulty of understanding STEM and humanities concepts is relatively equal. They don’t label themselves as a “STEM person” or a “humanities person” because they can succeed in both fields with effort. On the contrary, students who find it easier to grasp one subject area over the other often form the belief that all subjects should require little work. This leads to a false equivalency between needing to work in order to succeed and a lack of ability in a subject.

Andover’s diverse range of classes and extracurriculars allows for students to define themselves far more broadly or specifically than just as stem person or a humanities person. Yet many students still choose to divide themselves into these manufactured and damaging categories. It is necessary that we create a culture where students take advantage of this opportunity to redefine themselves in whatever terms they choose.