Why STEM Needs the Humanities

The Chronicle of Higher Education

When I was a freshman, half a century ago, I asked one of my professors — an eminent mathematician named Lars Ahlfors — for advice on my academic program. As a budding mathematician, I knew about a lot of math courses I should take and some physics courses as well. I asked what other courses in math and science I should include in my program. Ahlfors replied, “Don’t take more courses in those subjects. Once you get to graduate school, you’ll be studying nothing but mathematics. Now is your chance to become well-educated. Study literature, history, and foreign languages.”

I sometimes repeat this story to my students and hope that the message is not drowned out by what they might be hearing from parents, friends, and the media.

The weakening of liberal-arts traditions and the corporatization of higher education are on the minds of many of us. Particularly ominous is the nationwide trend toward education-on-the-cheap in our entry-level courses. This takes two forms. First, more and more undergraduate courses are being taught online. This might be good for the institution’s bottom line, but in most cases it is not good for the student, whose learning and whose college experience are being diminished.

Second, introductory courses are increasingly being taught by adjuncts, graduate students, and second-tier teaching faculty. The result is to transform the first (and sometimes second) year of college into an extension of high school, lower the intellectual level of introductory courses in both humanities and STEM fields, and create further distance between students and the world of research and innovation.

The argument against replacing the liberal-arts tradition with a narrow vocationalism is usually phrased in purely humanistic terms — the importance of educating the whole person, the need for a broadly informed citizenry, and so on. Often overlooked is that for STEM majors, as much as for other future professionals, a broad background in the humanities is likely to give them a tremendous advantage in their career.

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