Why the Humanities Matter in STEM

Photo credit: Prateek Katyal, 2023.

A 2017 article in the Washington Post discussed how now, in the age of big data and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), liberal arts and humanities degrees are perceived as far less valuable in the marketplace. I saw the same opinion held strong at both universities where I taught English. Many, many students believed wholeheartedly that the only thing they could do with a degree in English is teach.

I was hard-pressed to convince them otherwise since I was, in fact, teaching.

The Post article goes on to argue, however, for abundant evidence that humanities and liberal arts degrees are far from useless.

When I started graduate school in 2007 at university that beautifully balances the arts and sciences (shout out to you, Carnegie Mellon!), my advisor recommended I take “the Rhetoric of Science.” I meekly informed her that I wasn’t really into science. I thought it would be a bad fit, that I would not fare well and my resulting grade would reveal my lack of interest. She pressed, saying there was a great deal to learn in the class and that it wasn’t “scienc-ey.”

She was absolutely right. I was fascinated from the start. The course focused on science as argument, science as rebuttal, but most of all science as persuasive tool. Or, at least the persuasiveness came from how we talk and write about science. My seminar paper, one of which I remain proud, was titled: “The Slut Shot. Girls, Gardasil, and Godliness.” I got an A in the class, but more importantly I learned the fortified connection between language and science.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine urges a return to a broader conception of how to prepare students for a career in STEM. Arguing that the hyper-focus on specialization in college curricula is doing more harm than good, they argue that broad-based knowledge and examination of the humanities leads to better scientist. There is certainly the goal among academics to make students more employable upon graduation, and yet there is consensus that exposure to humanities is a net benefit.

The challenge is that there’s no data. Or, limited data anyway. The value of an Art History course or a Poetry Workshop at university is hard to measure against the quantifiable exam scores often produced in a Chemistry or Statistics class.

In a weak economy, it’s easy to point to certifications and licenses over the emotional intelligence gained by reading Fitzgerald or Dickinson. We find, though, that students (and later employees) who rely wholly on the confidence that science and technology provide answers, viewing it with an uncritical belief that solutions to all things lie in the technology – well, those beliefs are coming up short. Adherence to the power of science as the ultimate truth provides little guidance in the realm of real-world experiences.

In short, not all problems are tidy ones.

After all, being able to communicate scientific findings is the icing on the cake. We don’t get very far if we have results but do not know how to evangelize them.

In American universities right now, fewer than 5% of students major in the humanities. We’ve told them that’s no way to get a job. The more we learn about Sophocles, Plato, Kant, Freud, Welty, and others, the more prepared we are to take on life’s (and work’s) greatest challenges. It is precisely because the humanities are subversive that we need to keep them at the heart of the curriculum. Philosophical, literary, and even spiritual works are what pick at the underpinnings of every political, technological, and scientific belief.

While science clarifies and distills and teaches us a great deal about ourselves, the humanities remind us how easily we are fooled by science. The humanities remind us that although we are all humans, humans are each unique. Humans are unpredictable. Science is about answers and the humanities are about questions. Science is the what and the humanities are the why.

If we do our jobs well in the humanities, we will have generations to come of thinkers who question science, technology, engineering, and math.

And that is as it should be.

I welcome discussion about this or any other topic. I am happy to engage via comment or reply. Thanks for reading.


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