Making a case for the lib­eral arts

The impor­tance of STEM does not imply the unim­por­tance of the lib­eral arts.

Although I have been crit­i­cal of the lib­eral arts — often jovially, at times not — there can be no ques­tion that having the lib­eral arts as part of our soci­ety can be enrich­ing in more ways than one. Some narrow-minded politi­cians have, of late, been making rather non­sen­si­cal state­ments about scrap­ping the lib­eral arts alto­gether and having only sci­ence, or STEM to be spe­cific, as a real’ col­lege degree.

If they were expect­ing any sup­port from any self-respect­ing member of the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity, they will prob­a­bly not get it. In fact, the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity has been extremely out­spo­ken about its sup­port for lib­eral arts and in recog­nis­ing its place in soci­ety. It would be both short-sighted and dim-witted to claim oth­er­wise and yet, for some strange reason, I was not the least bit shocked when I heard a bunch of politi­cians go on about exactly this. (Per­haps Mr Trump has set the bar so high that little, if any­thing, sur­prises us today?)

Sci­ence is not enough is an excel­lent edi­to­r­ial on why a nation needs as many stu­dents of the arts as of the sci­ences. The arti­cle too stems from the wild state­ments of many politi­cians, begin­ning, most notably, with Ken­tucky gov­er­nor, Matt Bevin, who wants stu­dents major­ing in elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing to receive state sub­si­dies … [but not] those who study sub­jects such as French lit­er­a­ture’. Mr Bevin him­self has a BA in East Asian stud­ies, was a stu­dent of Japan­ese in col­lege, and his edu­ca­tion was, by his own state­ment, funded in part by exter­nal finan­cial aid. 

Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can ran an arti­cle in its last issue, writ­ten by the edi­to­r­ial board, called Sci­ence is not enough’, which put forth some valid points in sup­port of a lib­eral arts cur­ricu­lum. Is the US focus­ing too much on STEM?’ asked The Atlantic two years ago, point­ing out that STEM can quickly become a buzz­word adversely affect­ing stu­dents who do not get a qual­ity, well-rounded edu­ca­tion’. This is pre­cisely what SciAm argues in favour of the lib­eral arts as well, and when you think about it, there is almost no other argu­ment one can think of.

Sci­ence is, undoubt­edly, impor­tant. How impor­tant it is ought to be decided on an inci­dent-by-inci­dent basis, but the back­drop of such an argu­ment remains the same: sci­ences (and engi­neer­ing) and the lib­eral arts go hand-in-hand to make a mul­ti­di­men­sional soci­ety. And only such a soci­ety can even sur­vive in the long run. If you had only weapons facil­i­ties and a bunch of guys inter­ested in using weapons, there would be havoc and we would end our own race in the blink of an eye. While one might blame the lib­eral arts idea of patri­o­tism’ for incit­ing wars in the first place, it should not be over­looked that it is the same lib­eral arts that can help us avoid war and live peace­fully in the first place. Much like sci­ence, we can both spark and dif­fuse a war with this, and not having it can con­saider­ably reduce our chances of having a peace­ful soci­ety.

Of course, sci­ence alone can also drive a peace­ful soci­ety, and we need sci­en­tists today more than ever, but not at the cost of the human­i­ties. A lot of people who write about this issue (includ­ing SciAm and Slash­Dot) quote Steve Jobs, who put it rather poet­i­cally: it’s in Apple’s DNA that tech­nol­ogy alone is not enough — that it’s tech­nol­ogy mar­ried with lib­eral arts, mar­ried with the human­i­ties, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.’ And Steve Jobs was no engi­neer, yet he led Apple to become one of America’s rich­est com­pa­nies.

Iden­ti­fy­ing inter­ested can­di­dates and invest­ing heav­ily in their inter­ests, whether in sci­ence or in the arts, is simply a much clev­erer way of going about things. 

Broad edu­ca­tion is impor­tant and I cannot stress this enough. One must be both sci­en­tif­i­cally and emo­tion­ally intel­li­gent to not only sur­vive but also con­tribute to and be an inte­gral part of soci­ety. Social reason is as impor­tant as sci­en­tific rea­son­ing, and robots — a clas­sic exam­ple of what only sci­ence with­out a drop of lib­eral arts can do to you — are proof enough that STEM alone is point­less. As a man of physics myself I most cer­tainly sup­port and push for better edu­ca­tion in physics, par­tic­u­larly every­where around the world, but never as a replace­ment for any other field. In effect, saying STEM-only is the way to go would be like saying we can all be replaced by robots. We have, in fact, long since estab­lished that while robots may replace some (or most, depend­ing on your out­look and the advent of tech­nol­ogy in the coming days), it will not replace every­one — the so-called human factor’ simply plays a huge role in soci­ety and the devel­op­ment of humans and robots cannot give us that. The lib­eral arts, to some extent, can.

It would be just as much a fal­lacy to claim that lib­eral arts alone can teach this: a lot of people simply acquire such skills by living in soci­ety. But then what brought those skills to soci­ety in the first place? A teach­ing of the lib­eral arts in some capac­ity: in school, by pro­fes­sors, from par­ents to chil­dren etc. The edu­ca­tion policy of any coun­try would be ill-served and crip­pled if you clip off one of its wings. An exclu­sive focus on STEM is unhealthy’, says Jalees Rehman, writ­ing on Richard Dawkins’ web­site, because stu­dents miss out on the valu­able knowl­edge that the arts and human­i­ties teach us.’ He also points to a few objec­tions he has to Fareed Zakaria’s old arti­cle on this issue, pub­lished in the Wash­ing­ton Post, which, to some extent, sparked this debate about STEM and brought it to the main­stream, gar­ner­ing a lot of oppo­si­tion to STEM-only edu­ca­tion from the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity itself.

On a more prac­ti­cal note, as SciAm points out, there are plenty of jobs for non-STEM stu­dents. This point about there being fewer jobs is some­thing a lot of politi­cians and blind advo­cates of STEM have used time and again. A grad­u­ate with knowl­edge of physics and poetry is often the more pre­ferred can­di­date for a job, the mag­a­zine points out. Many sci­en­tists encour­age philo­soph­i­cal, even human­i­ties-based dis­cus­sions in their lab­o­ra­to­ries because the solu­tion to a prob­lem in the human­i­ties may well lie in how sci­ence approaches it anew. And, con­versely, almost every great sci­en­tist in his­tory has been well-edu­cated in the human­i­ties, or at least has had an open-mind to dis­cuss, con­tribute to and voice opin­ions on issues most would believe to be strictly out­side the domain of sci­ence. It comes down to being a well-rounded human being, and for that sci­ence is impor­tant and the lib­eral arts are impor­tant too.

The Issues in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy mag­a­zine once ran an arti­cle by Robert Atkin­son where he puts forth a valid point: there is futil­ity in a some STEM for all’ approach, and it should instead be all STEM for some’ if sci­ence edu­ca­tion should be useful to any degree. I am inclined to agree with him. The reason why the former approach is often taken is because STEM is seen as a driver of econ­omy. This rea­son­ing is hollow because an arts or human­i­ties edu­ca­tion will put a suf­fi­cient number of jobs before stu­dents. Fur­ther, some sci­ence edu­ca­tion is no better than no sci­ence edu­ca­tion. One might argue that it is worse. How­ever, once you get past non-issues like pow­er­ing national econ­omy and what­ever else, it becomes clear that the only reason that should drive a STEM-based edu­ca­tion — the all STEM for some’ approach — should be the same reason that drives any sci­en­tists: curios­ity, a thirst for knowl­edge and a desire to under­stand nature. Any­thing else would under­mine both arts/​humanities and sci­ence alike. I par­tic­u­larly like this para­graph:

Saying that the nation should pour resources into K – 12 because every­one needs to know STEM is akin to saying that because music is impor­tant to soci­ety, every K – 12 stu­dent should have access to a Stein­way piano and a Juil­liard-trained music teacher. In fact, because very few stu­dents become pro­fes­sional musi­cians, doing this would be a waste of soci­etal resources. It would be far better to find stu­dents inter­ested in music and give them the focused edu­ca­tional oppor­tu­ni­ties they need. STEM is no dif­fer­ent.

Some people have pro­posed STEAM, or Sci­ence, Tech­nol­ogy, Engi­neer­ing, Arts and Math­e­mat­ics, a mashup between STEM and the arts. One key trend of late is that a lot of STEM grad­u­ates tend to go into man­age­ment a decade down the line. Most no longer keep work­ing in the labs, involv­ing them­selves in sci­ence. This is a big argu­ment in sup­port of pro­duc­ing lots and lots of STEM grad­u­ates, in hope that some will stay.

This is an uneco­nom­i­cal way of look­ing at it. It is akin to blind­fold­ing your­self and ran­domly throw­ing paint all over the room, hoping the one wall you want will get painted. Mr Atkinson’s idea of iden­ti­fy­ing inter­ested can­di­dates and invest­ing heav­ily in their inter­ests, whether in sci­ence or arts, is simply a clev­erer way of going about things. Even indus­tries are not ben­e­fit­ted by simply engi­neer­ing-ori­ented devel­op­ment because it often (not always, but quite often and to a con­sid­er­able extent) reduces the prac­ti­cal usabil­ity of the machines in daily life. Some of this is once again related to emo­tional intel­li­gence’, of not simply making devices more pow­er­ful, but visu­al­is­ing how some­one would use their device, what cir­cum­stances they would be in, and what the most com­fort­able approach to a prob­lem would be. This empa­thy in a prod­uct is a direct result of good design and not improved tech­nol­ogy alone, and is some­thing that does not nec­es­sar­ily come as a result of STEM edu­ca­tion, and cer­tainly not from STEM-only edu­ca­tion.

As the Hechinger Report points out, the prob­lem could be a more fun­da­men­tal one: a lot of this push for STEM-only edu­ca­tion is a direct result of an unfor­tu­nate mis­read­ing of what the value of a col­lege edu­ca­tion is’. I have long been an advo­cate of stu­dents in the human­i­ties study­ing a little math­e­mat­ics. I would just as read­ily sup­port a cur­ricu­lum that intro­duces STEM stu­dents to con­sid­er­able thoughts and philoso­phies from the human­i­ties. The prac­ti­cal­ity asso­ci­ated with some STEM fields (par­tic­u­larly, I refer to how engi­neer­ing is often con­sid­ered to be more prac­ti­cal than, say, astro­physics) and, sub­se­quently, the imprac­ti­cal­ity asso­ci­ated with a non-STEM edu­ca­tion are both short-sighted and dis­mis­sive of the long-term ben­e­fits of these fields — not unlike a lot of acad­e­mia. And it is pre­cisely because these fields have long-term ben­e­fits that we tend not to realise the value they slowly but con­stantly add to soci­ety, pri­ori­tis­ing, instead, the quick and broken bursts of tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ment afforded by some­thing like engi­neer­ing.

Lastly, to say having more STEM grad­u­ates means brin­ing about a pro­por­tional increase in par­tic­i­pa­tion in STEM-related fields and, in turn, a pro­por­tional bet­ter­ment of the econ­omy, would quite simply be silly and mis­in­formed. There is almost no solid evi­dence of this being true — at least not truer than the ben­e­fits of the lib­eral arts to human­i­ties. It is not to say that study­ing sci­ence does not make a person human or that study­ing the lib­eral arts does not teach one to think log­i­cally. It is just that the two ought to and have often always gone hand in hand. Sci­en­tists have enjoyed the occa­sional dip into human­i­ties, and philoso­phers have often indulged in some sci­ence and both fields have been wel­com­ing to each other. The most ben­e­fi­cial way for­ward would be to let them both thrive, let jobs carve their own spaces, and let people pick what they are inter­ested in study­ing. The estab­lish­ment — and cer­tain politi­cians — must stop med­dling. If they simply let STEM and the lib­eral arts grow har­mo­niously, they will quickly be able to afford the luxury of sit­ting back and watch­ing the econ­omy boom.


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