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 the 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.