Comments on the relation between STEM and humanities

There has been plenty of media coverage within the last few months on the so-called “STEM crisis”: that too few people study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). A decent online introduction to the STEM crisis can be found here. Though, the article I would like to briefly comment on is from Inside Higher Ed titled “False Dichotomy.” With the increased emphasis on the STEM subjects, the humanities and liberal arts are resultantly given less attention. (For convenience[1], I will use humanities and liberal arts interchangeably from this point onward.) Underlying this debate about STEM subjects (versus liberal arts) is the dominant view that the liberal arts and the more technical fields (e.g., engineering) are discordant or incompatible with each other. Devin Hagerty – the author of the article I am commenting on – puts it this way: “As new students arrived on college campuses this fall, the message many of them heard is that majoring in history, or English, or anthropology is a surefire recipe for a life of irrelevance and poor job prospects. These ‘conventional’ disciplines cannot possibly train students for productive, enriching careers in the high-tech information age whose future is now.” In examining the dominant view, a question that arises is: why should money be the main factor in determining what careers are productive or relevant? I will not be able to answer the question, but invite comments on what readers think.

Now for my comments on Hagerty’s take on the separation between STEM subjects and the humanities. First, I especially like how Hagerty frames the debate in terms of the skills gained – whether liberal arts programs or curriculums provide skills that are of “practical value.” This debate, when I interpret it in terms of skills, brings out the relation between ‘natural sciences’[2] and humanities[3] (or “human sciences” (Dilthey 1991)), which is a philosophical issue that definitely has implications for higher education in general. Briefly, I think reading works (mainly by philosophers) on the relation between natural sciences and humanities could get us (re-)thinking what students should learn, and how to effectively teach students to be good learners and problem solvers. Precisely, I approve Wilhelm Dilthey’s “Introduction to the Human Sciences.”[4] Even though approximately two centuries have passed since Dilthey’s writing, much of it still applies today when we (i.e., people involved in higher education) look at the development of certain disciplines from a historical standpoint.

According to Dilthey, “The human sciences have developed from the sphere of practical life itself and have been cultivated through the requirements of professional training [e.g., political science, law]” (1991, vol. 1: Introduction to the Human Sciences, bk. 1 chapter 4). Also, “the system of those human sciences which contain the basis of the professional training for the institutions which guide society – and equally the presentation of this system in encyclopedias – ultimately arose from the need for a summary of what is necessary for such a basic education” (Dilthey 1991, vol. 1: Introduction to the Human Sciences, bk. 1 chapter 4). For instance, among the first applications of statistics was demography, which is typically considered part of sociology. Thus, the humanities or liberal arts have always been considered a key component of “basic education,” and there is no good reason – as far as I can think of – for discarding them from one’s basic education in this generation (and future generations).

Second, Hagerty mentions in passing about the increased attention given to the label “interdisciplinary” (or interdisciplinarity). Specifically, he gives an example of interdisciplinary education being embraced in American institutions: “At the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, students this fall can declare a new major called global studies, which integrates courses in 12 liberal arts departments – including economics, geography and environmental systems, history, media and communication studies, and political science – into a rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum.” This example sounds like a commendable attempt at promoting valuable skills that are desirable in any workplace. Besides, I uphold the fact that more and more meaningful problems are becoming global in nature. For this reason, there indeed is a growing need for the ability to appreciate multiple perspectives, and to respect cultural diversity. With this need to account for cultural and political factors, there is greater room for interdisciplinary endeavors; and I am a huge advocate for a balanced, interdisciplinary education that would draw (equally) from both liberal arts and natural sciences. Though, the meaning of the concept “interdisciplinarity” is worth clarifying[5], as the concept rapidly is becoming a buzzword with mixed reactions. Moreover, I will end with the following question[6]: what do readers think either of the proliferation of “interdisciplinarity”, or the relation between natural science and humanities?

References

Dilthey, Wilhelm. 1991. Wilhelm Dilthey: Selected Works. Edited by Rudolf A. Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi. Translated by Michael Neville. Vol. 1: Introduction to the Human Sciences. 6 vols. Princeton University Press.


[1]I acknowledge that “humanities” and “liberal arts” may not mean the same thing to many people; at the same time, I think they have enough similarities to be regarded as synonymous for the purpose of writing this blog post.

[2]includes physical sciences, life sciences, and mathematical sciences (including statistics) – disciplines that rely primarily on quantitative methods.

[3]academic disciplines that study human culture, using methods that are primarily analytical/critical – distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the sciences.

[4]It is worth noting that Dilthey very likely influenced the naming of the college I am in (i.e., the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences).

[5]not here, but perhaps in my future endeavors.

[6]I welcome your comments, as this blog is intended to be a place for others to think out loud and make sense of debates in higher education.

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