STEM v. Humanities: Addressing the Misconception of Splitting Arts and Science

Between 2011 and 2019, almost all arts and humanities fields in the U.S. saw a decline in the number of bachelor degrees awarded.

Between 2011 and 2019, almost all arts and humanities fields in the U.S. saw a decline in the number of bachelor degrees awarded. This is unsurprising, given that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs increased on average by 14 percent from 2010 to 2020, and certain fields, such as biomedical engineering, soared by 62 percent. With the increased globalization of education networks and the expanding influence of technologies on our lives, many fields in STEM appear to offer more remunerative career options. At Lawrenceville, as we gain more independence in class choices, we begin to overly emphasize the misconception that STEM and humanities are somehow disconnected, such as the idea that one has to choose to be a STEM or humanities person in order to succeed. This is especially problematic amidst fears that humanities may become obsolete in the face of emerging trends in technologies.

Instead of discussing how “useful” or valuable STEM or the humanities are, we actually ought to address the issue of considering them as mutually exclusive. The sciences seek answers through data, literature seeks answers through words, but at the end of the day, both lead to a greater understanding of our place in the world. Thus, STEM and the humanities are fundamentally complementary, and given that academia has grown to become ever more interdisciplinary, we, as students, must become well versed in multiple fields through the course of our education in order to excel in any one field.

Ever wonder why the highest academic degree in most sciences is called a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)? All science stems from an ancient philosophical impulse to rationalize phenomena of the natural world, and the study of human consciousness illustrates the strength of this connection. Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers proposed that there are two types of problems in consciousness—easy and hard. The easy problems can be explained empirically through the understanding of neural mechanisms. However, hard problems cannot be answered without the help of philosophy. For instance: “Why does the feeling which accompanies awareness of sensory information exist at all?” This plays into the medical dilemma of determining whether patients in vegetative states are conscious or not, a question that is extremely difficult to answer through mere experiments. As these patients are barely, if at all, able to respond to stimuli, we have very few ways of gauging their actual cognitive function. Consequently, judgements around how these patients should be treated, especially when regarding a possible brain-death, often boils down to ethical considerations. In the cutting edge studies of our own minds and the treatment of that information, we cannot rely on hard science alone.

As another example, the study of human behavior connects STEM fields such as applied mathematics to humanitarian fields such as law. Game theory, one of the most important mathematical concepts developed in recent history, has been applied to the prediction of decision making and other areas of complex human behaviors that involve probabilities. One could claim that this shows how mathematicians are attempting to replace aspects of the humanities by finding ways to fit human behavior into numerical, formulaic descriptions, but people are not rational or logical all the time, so without infinite information, our actions will never be dictated entirely by numbers. Clearly, the humanities assist our understanding of motivations behind our behaviors and interactions with one another.

Moreover, by overvaluing science over humanities, we risk losing track of the most important aspect of scientific discoveries: how they affect society. This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool. While this technology contributes phenomenally to the life sciences, its use, such as mixing human and animal genes, can have serious ethical ramifications, as illustrated by the scandal of the Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who gene-edited a pair of twin babies. Understanding the ethics behind the application of these systems is necessary to ensure that we are using them mindfully and properly. Another example is the fMRI scan which can now collect data of participants’ brain activity, raising an ethical question regarding our individual liberties. Regulating and defining socially responsible applications of such technology requires measures grounded in the humanities, because only by doing so can we keep our technologies in check. We cannot forget to pause and reflect on the social and ethical consequences of these ever-increasing technological breakthroughs, especially in this day and age when advancements happen ever more rapidly.

The convergence of STEM and humanities finds a myriad of examples in schools and businesses alike, and recognizing their overlap means that studying both sciences and humanities are equally important.

It is increasingly evident that the future workplace and society will require literacy in both STEM and the humanities; anyone who wants to become a leader in a STEM field will need a significant grasp of the liberal arts, while people pursuing humanities can rest well knowing that their talents are necessary for the growing STEM fields to contribute properly to society.


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