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Opinion | Can supporting non-STEM majors help America’s political agenda?

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When I traveled to China to teach for the first time in 2020, I was taken aback by a remark one of my students made.

“Why do I even need to learn English?”

I didn’t know how to answer her. I didn’t know how to convey to her that I took high school Spanish for three years straight because it was one of the most spoken languages in the world, or how I tried to start reading books in Chinese because not only did it seem like my career would require it, but also because I wanted to understand better the rich culture and long history of China. In citing similar motivations for learning English, I found her to be unimpressed.

I thought about non-professional appeals, thinking she might be too young to appreciate the reasons I gave previously. After all, my pre-teen peers, obsessed with the portrayed glamorous aesthetics and posh lifestyle of France, were devastated when French wasn’t offered during eighth grade; and unbeknownst to me at the time, I would become the owner of beginner level Korean books almost ten years later as I grew an interest in South Korea’s music, food and culture.    

The pull of cultural influence on our decisions can be attributed to soft power. Soft power has been traditionally seen to serve a significant influence on the decisions people, businesses and governments make. Joseph Nye, a noted political scientist and original thought leader of the term, makes the case that soft power has impacts as far as “a means to success in world politics” for those who know how to leverage it.

The Soft Power Index, proposed by the Institute for Government, measures soft power across six categories: culture, diplomacy, government, education, business/innovation and subjective measures. These can take many different forms, such as food, medical care, communication networks and outright monetary grants. Cultural exports, such as movies, food and luxury goods are also considered by Nye to be core components of soft power growth. More recently, media, entertainment and the arts have soared in influence for soft power rankings as the world becomes more connected through the internet.

Yet, despite this sound strategy for wielding foreign policy influence, America’s soft power has been on the decline post-9/11, and has been steadily dropping in rank according to the Soft Power 30 project, which aims to rank the top 30 best-fairing soft power countries each year, from each country’s inception.

It’s clear that our influence and others’ admiration come from both technological advancements and the arts. Yet, at such STEM-dominated institutions like Stanford, do college campuses share a responsibility to encourage their student populations toward the latter pursuit as well? At The Daily, numerous pieces have been published on the overwhelming domination of STEM/CS-related degrees, identifying trends and statistics of these degrees both across campus and as compared nationally. The New York Times ran a piece back in 2013 noting the shared fear of humanities departments on college campuses across the nation as the percentage of non-STEM students shrank but that of faculty did not. Stanford’s humanities department has been battling this divide as early as 2011. On a campus where Integrated Development Environments (IDEs, used for software development) dominate computer screens, can Stanford play a more prominent role in encouraging the mildly interested students toward non-STEM majors, rather than allowing only the most courageous of pupils to succeed in the pursuit of a less popular academic passion?

To be clear, it’s not that STEM majors do not contribute to innovations that influence a generation’s culture, but rather that the loss of students with potential and passion for the humanities and arts to the more “attractive” STEM degree stunts the full potential of our cultural influence. At this campus, humanities students constantly face deflated responses to hearing their major to be non-STEM. Stanford alum Catherine Goetze ’18 noted a particularly harrowing sophomore year as she pushed herself to let go of her media passion and conform to a more “CS-ey” major. However, the byproduct of humanities can mean a greater reach of the technology America develops or the creation of cultural products that once again capture the attention and hype of citizens abroad. Both are important; thus, both should be equally prioritized and respected. 

At the end of the day, students want their education to prepare them for meaningful lives and good careers. Strategies such as providing students with internship or experiential opportunities both during and after the degree program can accomplish both of the above goals, and are especially beneficial for humanities majors. More demonstration by campus leadership on their priorities to support the influence of the humanities can change the perspective of each STEM-minded cohort that Stanford graduates. With stronger support from our universities, campuses can play a role in increasing representation in globalized workplaces through their support of students in non-STEM majors. We can reduce the number of students who have given up their creative pursuits and professional interests to conform to the perceived nobleness of STEM education on this campus.

The importance of soft power cannot be understated. On the soft power rankings, France comes in first due to its strong performance in the art, film, food, sport and tourism categories, and this has translated to French political successes such as President Emmanuel Macron’s ability to appease the US on the French tech tax. Non-western countries such as South Korea have also begun to leverage their soft power as a political strategy. Once noted by a U.S. official as never being able to attain a high standard of living, South Korea has gone from the third world to the first world within the past 60 years, to now a nation which has been given a global stage to speak on major challenges such as climate change and COVID-19 policies at the UN General Assembly. South Korean President Moon Jae-In has publicly voiced his reliance on his country’s newly appointed special presidential envoys, born from a demonstrated global pop culture dominance, to promote South Korea’s agenda. East Asia illustrates how countries grow soft power through both technology and the arts. For example, both China and South Korea enjoy increasing R&D investment and technological advancements. Yet, both countries have succeeded in raising the prominence of their cultural influence; though their soft power spans many avenues, just one example is through their entertainment media: China’s Story of Yanxi Palace was the most Googled TV show of 2018 globally, despite Google being banned in China, and South Korea claimed the highest-searched movie of 2020 and Netflix TV show of 2021 thus far. For China, this has resulted in a more positive view of the country in Taiwan in light of recent political unrest, and while South Korea still ranks at 19, its soft power is steadily increasing. As other countries begin to pay attention to their own soft power, perhaps turning around the overall downward trend of U.S. soft power can start with initiatives born in a place as tame as a college campus.

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Rebecca Wang '22 is one of Vol. 260's columnists for the Opinions section. She is a graduate student studying aeronautical & astronautical engineering. A Texas native, she enjoys reading, frisbee, and spending time with friends. Contact her at [email protected]