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Breaking Up with STEM

<h5>1879 Hall</h5>
<h6>Kerrie Liang / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
1879 Hall
Kerrie Liang / The Daily Princetonian

I don’t like math.

Sitting in my high school calculus class, I came to the not-so-shocking conclusion that, quite frankly, math was boring. Don’t get me wrong, my distaste for the subject has nothing to do with the teaching style or its difficulty —  that’s right, even the great work of Sal Khan can’t get me to enjoy linear algebra. 

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Instead, the reason why I don’t like math is simple: I just don’t. 

And yet, even though it’s been two years since I came to that conclusion, I still can’t seem to stop taking math courses.

Going into 7th grade, I was the poster child for STEM. Having found math and science easier than English in primary school, it seemed like a no-brainer to enroll in my school’s advanced STEM classes. Despite having no concept of engineering at all, I had also opted into the extension engineering program, because how bad could it possibly be, right? One month into the semester — and at least two breakdowns over not understanding how to use Autodesk Inventor — I realized that bad was an understatement. 

In retrospect, I should’ve dropped engineering when given the opportunity to do so, but 12-year-old me refused to look like a quitter. And while it seems ridiculous to say, even after being presented with multiple chances to switch into something more enjoyable, I had said no every time, convinced that I would feel great satisfaction in knowing that I persevered. In fact, I had stuck with that class until I stopped being eligible for it. And when I emerged from the other side after three long years of crying over failed code and stressing over robotics, I did not feel fulfilled. Instead, I was left with the regret that I had wasted so much time over something I didn’t even like.

However, my tumultuous journey with STEM subjects did not end there. In Australia, students graduate high school with an Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR), a percentile that ranks them among other students in the state — this score is the sole determinant of what university degree you can study. This rank is an amalgamation of various factors, with arguably one of the more important ones being which subjects you choose to study. 

It is common knowledge that while you could choose to never take science again and opt to fulfill the math requirement with the general-level math course, it is nearly impossible to achieve the top ranking without some combination of chemistry, physics, and advanced math. In fact, with inter-subject scaling, you could score in the top 1 percent of students taking Ancient History and still have it curved to be lower than someone scoring in the top 50 percent of students taking Specialist Mathematics. 

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In the 10th grade, students are given this life-altering task to choose six subjects to pursue further studies in until graduation. While students are told that subject selection is an opportunity to study topics that they enjoy, it is this idea that STEM is inherently more intellectual — that no matter how high you excel in a class like history, you will never even be valued as much as an average student in math — that drives students to sacrifice their interests to get into a good university program.

For me, this meant clawing through three years of physics despite knowing that once I graduated, I would never touch that subject again. It meant sharing my interest in music with my career advisor, only to be told in front of my mother that I needed to start separating my hobbies from my potential career paths. And sure, I could have switched out of physics to take music, but every time I brought up the idea at school, I was told to “think about the subject scaling.” Nobody ever questioned whether graduating with a top rank was worth depriving themselves of an enjoyable learning experience.

When ATAR Day came, many of my friends who took a humanities-heavy course load opened their student portal to see rankings that did not reflect their near-perfect scores. They chose to learn for the sake of learning, and instead of being rewarded for it, they were deemed numerically less than STEM students with lower test scores, facing difficulties when competing with them for programs and scholarships. 

However, the consequences of this “STEM superiority” don’t just disappear after high school. For my friends, it means having to pay twice as much to get a Bachelor of Arts instead of a Bachelor of Science. For educators and scholars, it means having your work be underfunded and undervalued. And for students like me, it means treating education like a game to be played rather than actually learning.

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At Princeton, I still find myself holding onto the last threads of my STEM persona. As a prospective philosophy major who has already satisfied their Quantitative and Computational Reasoning requirement, there is literally no reason for me to be taking math. Yet this semester, I find myself in MAT 202: Linear Algebra with Applications, struggling to find any shred of interest towards the content that is being presented.

It’s not that I think the class is impossibly hard, I just simply do not care for it. Still, I refuse to stop putting myself through these courses because saying goodbye to my STEM persona is hard. It’s hard to let go of the qualities that have defined my intellectual identity for so long. And even though most Princeton students celebrate the humanities and social sciences, hearing people joke about me not being able to get a job or diminishing my achievements by saying “yeah, but she’s a philosophy major” can be difficult to swallow.

Throughout the struggles of high school, I found my philosophy class to be my personal safe haven. Like many humanities or social science disciplines, philosophy invited me to approach the unsolvable and the undetermined. It invited me to continue pondering, even after we feel like we’ve found an answer, because a question doesn’t end at the last line of a proof or when the calculator generates a number. And this invitation stands to this day.

Now at Princeton, I feel liberated. I am afforded the privilege to be discerning in what I choose to do and I am allowed to drop things that I don’t enjoy. And although some days I wonder whether the grass is greener on the other side, for the first time I am learning for the sake of learning — and that should be enough.

Kerrie Liang is an Assistant Editor for The Prospect and Podcasts at the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at kerrie.liang@princeton.edu, or on Instagram at @kerrie.liang.

Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect@dailyprincetonian.com.

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