June 14, 2013 6:50 pm

Subjects of desire

In an age of economic challenge and technological change, why do students choose humanities rather than sciences?
Illustration by Shonagh Rae of a pen and a multiple choice test paper©Shonagh Rae

Does America need more computer scientists and engineers? Or does it actually require people who understand political history and prose? These are not entirely academic questions. In recent weeks, thousands of frazzled American families have endured the modern hell that is high-school exams. But it is not just the dreaded SAT tests that are causing nightmares. For many of the families and teenagers I know, the really nasty challenge revolves around the so-called Advanced Placement, or AP, tests.

In theory, these are voluntary, supplementary exams, which were devised six decades ago by the College Board, a non-profit group, to let talented teenagers experience introductory college work. In practice, however, the fight to get into American colleges is now so ultra-competitive that more and more kids are being pushed into taking these exams. In 2012, more than two million students took 3.7 million AP tests, more than double the number a decade earlier, and five times the number two decades before.

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Gillian Tett

Unsurprisingly, this explosion has stirred up heated debate. Last year, for example, John Tierney, a politics professor and Boston high-school teacher, set the US blogosphere buzzing after he dubbed the AP “one of the great frauds currently perpetrated on American high-school students”. Most notably, Tierney decried the exams as a waste of valuable teaching resources, which foster “a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry”.

However, the AP organisers disagree. “The AP Program is not a simple cure for all challenges we face within our education systems. But as educators use AP standards to help a diversity of students engage in rigorous work worth doing, I find myself inspired daily by what they are achieving,” declared Trevor Packer, a senior vice-president of the AP board.

To my mind, what is most interesting of all about these exams is the question of what those American kids – or their parents – are choosing to study. If you look at the US high school education system overall, it is admirably broad in scope – at least, it is compared to the UK, where children must pick just two, three or four subjects to study at the age of 16 via A-levels.

However, within its broad system, the AP is one of the few places where specialism rules: teenagers typically choose to sit exams in just one or two subjects from 39 different courses. Now, you might think that in this era of economic flux, technological innovation and globalisation, students and schools would opt for subjects that tap into this trend. Policy makers today are trumpeting so-called “STEM” subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) and parents know that these subjects tend to produce jobs.

But the AP exams do not reflect that at all. Last year, according to the AP website, the most popular exam to take, by a long margin, was English literature and composition: 824,000 kids sat those tests, a threefold increase on the decade. In second place was American history, which attracted 428,000 students, twice the number of a decade before. In third place, with 360,000 students, was one STEM subject: calculus. After that came US politics and government, psychology and world history. Biology ranked below that, while chemistry and computing science were further down the list. And physics was so unpopular that seven times more students sat the English exams than physics.

Why? The AP website itself does not comment on the pattern, and it is unclear whether the AP subject choice always matches college degrees. Some of those students studying poetry, in other words, may still become engineers. Indeed, it would be nice to think – or dream – that some far-minded teenagers are deliberately using the AP exam to enhance their communication skills or civic knowledge of the American constitution before they become scientists.

. . .

In truth, though, I suspect that most students are picking English and history because it seems an easy thing to do, given the slant of their prior education (or the education of the parents who are helping them study). I would also bet that very few humanities students are being steered towards calculus and physics “just for fun”: in high school, as in western society more broadly, science has an aura of exclusivity and inaccessibility; mental barriers are erected at an early age. But frankly, that is a tragedy. Speaking for myself, I have spent my life embedded in the humanities: after doing English, French, maths and art at school, I did degrees in social anthropology before becoming a journalist.

But in spite of that background – or, rather, because of it – I am keenly aware of the value of STEM subjects. Indeed, I regret having dropped science at such a young age. That does not mean, let me stress, that literature and history are not extremely valuable subjects – they are. After all, studying these subjects in high school has helped to foster a common civic identity in America, particularly given its immigrant roots. Indeed, many of those arriving in the country did not initially come from English-speaking cultures, which is one reason these subjects are taught so heavily. But a seven-to-one ratio between prose and physics seems a strange ratio for modern America – most of all at a time of economic challenge and technological change.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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