In a Washington Post column titled “Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous” late last month, Fareed Zakaria ’86 renewed the debate on the recent shift towards science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Zakaria’s not a critic of STEM in the abstract, candidly recognizing its central role in addressing many of the vexing questions of the modern age, from medical research on longevity to statistical insights on inequality. What he does criticize — justifiably — is the focus on STEM at the expense of other subjects.
The nascent trend, from college campuses to primary school classrooms, has been framed as a prizefight that pits the quantitative against the qualitative, science against the study of the human experience. And in the age of unprecedented technological innovation, enduring economic stagnation for the middle class and the commodification of increasingly expensive higher education, lucrative STEM degrees appear to have all but won the fight.
Even the liberal arts-championing Ivy League institutions have endured 20 percent declines in humanities departments over the past decade. It’s math that even English majors understand well: The great American novel no longer has the same draw as the novel American start-up.
Skills conferred to students of the humanities — writing, listening, conversing, disagreeing, appreciating the past, speculating for the future — are empirically less profitable than those of STEM students. But they’re certainly no less significant.
In general, practical objectives define the American obsession with STEM. Most fundamentally, science answers questions, using the tried-and-true process of investigation and discovery. Students perennially complain that the humanities seem to offer comparatively fewer resolutions, endlessly circling back to the same existential queries left to us by Locke, Plato and Rawls. But the gift of the humanities is not in the answers they provide, but in the questions they provoke. You cannot begin the process of scientific inquiry without lessons from the humanities.
All scientific aspirations begin with the recognition of a need for an answer to a question. But first we must decide which questions are worth asking — by asking certain questions, other questions necessarily must go unanswered. The very act of asking a question is an inherently moral one, based on the social utility humans believe an answer might realize.
It follows that the questions we care about reflect our priorities and values. Look at a modern example: global warming. Most people hold an uncontroversial belief that present generations have both a practical and ethical obligation to protect the planet. For the past 30 years, the overwhelming body of data has demonstrated the inconvenient truth that, due to man-made activity, the planet is heating at a perniciously fast rate. Science has delivered a preponderance of the evidence, but so what? Data itself doesn’t convince a zealous minority of the crisis or silence the entrenched opposition.
It takes pathos to persuade people that the facts uncovered by science contain something meaningful, that the questions underlying the discoveries are consequential. It takes skills that require a deep-seated understanding of cultural nuance and psychological and sociological factors.
Here lies an important distinction: Those who refuse to believe in science aren’t merely disputing the evidence; they’re objecting to the premise.
After all, scientists can spend their careers addressing any infinite number of issues. But that they choose a single question to answer reveals that we, as a people, place some value in that answer. Beyond our perceived sacrosanct mores, the underlying motivations and assumptions that buoy research become hard pills to swallow for those whose basic worldviews remain incompatible with rationalism.
Science is the meadow of rationality. To shepherd all skeptics into the pasture, to convince them to buy into the premises of science, we need language, persuasion and an appeal to non-rational factors — in short, an essential understanding of the human state.
Enter the humanities. Its lessons represent the bridge between two ostensibly disparate worlds, the rational sciences and the waveringly irrational human mind. Without a deep appreciation for the values and priorities of a society, science is a compass without labels. Though the scientific method is the best tool we’ve yet agreed upon for unearthing truth, it wouldn’t function without astute questions directing its labors and a populace willing to accept and act on its findings.
Science works with our sense of humanity, not against it.
And, whether we admit it or not, the questions asked reflect our priorities and values as a people. These priorities and values, determined by ongoing interrogation and discourse, are the core of the humanities.
Graham Ambrose is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .