Reader Request Week 2016 #8: STEM and STEAM

Andy Farke asks:

For decades now, various think-pieces have commented on a divide between sciences and humanities. “The Two Cultures” by C.P. Snow is an early version of this, but it is manifested today in discussions about STEM and STEAM, the value of liberal arts, and discussions on the purpose of a college education. To some extent, science fiction writers inhabit multiple worlds. Do you think that a science/humanities divide is real, and if it is, how could it it be bridged? Or is it necessarily something that needs to be bridged? I’ve often seen the issue framed as how scientists can learn something from those in the humanities, and would be interested in your thoughts on that; but what about the reverse situation?

I don’t think it would come as a surprise to anyone that I am a proponent of the classical idea of a liberal education, in which the aim of the education is to create independently acting and thinking human beings who are well educated on a broad number of subjects, so these people are able to meaningfully contribute to the development, maintenance and governance of their nation and world.

To that end, a broad education for everyone includes not only science but humanities; not just humanities but science. A scientist should through her education be able to understand and appreciate a sonnet or a symphony or a painting; a writer should be able through education to understand paleontology or astronomy or physics.

Indeed, I think what probably needs to be chucked entirely is the idea that science and humanities are on either side of the fence from each other. Music is based in science, as an example; acoustics, mathematics, psychology and biology all play a role in how music is made and appreciated. The musician who knows about these topics (among others) has potentially better control of their instrument — not just the one they play, but the one in their head. Blocking yourself off from any knowledge because you perceive it as being on “the other side of the fence” is intentionally hobbling yourself and your creativity. The more complete your knowledge, and the better your education prepares you to synthesize knowledge from disparate sources, the more you can do with the talents you have.

Here’s a fun fact about me: when I was a kid, I wanted to be scientist. In point of fact, I wanted to be an astronomer. That was what I wanted to be until I got into junior high and then all of a sudden math became something that was really difficult for me. Fortunately around that time I started to realize that writing was something I was good at, and so my ambitions shifted. But when I decided to write instead of going into science, I didn’t throw away my love for astronomy or other branches of science. It was still great stuff even if I bumped up against the limits of my mathematical talent. My education in science continued, commensurate to my level of understanding.

Decades later that education keeps paying off, and not just in the sense of my job. Although it has in that, certainly — I’m a science fiction writer who uses the contemporary understanding of science as the springboard for fictional speculation about the universe. I’ve also written about science as well, in newspaper and magazine articles over the years as well as in books, including my own astronomy book, which was widely-praised and which went through two editions. Science has been good for my mortgage.

But as I noted above, I don’t think you get an education for your job (or just for a job). That science education also keeps paying off in how I’m able to understand what’s going on in the world in general, which matters for how I think and how I live and (importantly, especially these days) how I vote. Knowing science in addition to all the things I know about the humanities makes me a more engaged citizen and human.

Of course, not everyone is interested in science, or literature, or math, or whatever, and that’s totally fair. But here’s a thing I believe: 80% of every possible subject is understandable to the average human being — it’s that end 20% where you start getting into specialized knowledge which requires real commitment to the subject. I’m not worried about that last 20%; I’m more interested in that 80% most people can follow. If we can manage educating people on that part, we’re good.

This thinking is also, not entirely surprisingly, why I decided to go to the University of Chicago, which had (and has) a “core curriculum” which every student has to take. The core curriculum of the school has expanded a bit since I was there — it is not so insistent on the dead white guys, as I understand it — but what remains is the important part of a liberal education: The idea of a broad-based, wide-ranging education across disciplines, designed to impart knowledge but also designed to teach one how to learn, and how to cross-pollinate concepts and ideas across many different fields.

Mind you, there are a lot of people who don’t feel this sort of education is important, i.e., “shut up I’m just here to learn how to code/write/diagnose/whatever” and ask why, especially on the college level, they should spend tens of thousands of dollars to learn things that they don’t find important. Well, again, it depends on what you think education is for. If it’s just for a job, fair enough. But if it’s for more than a job — and I think it is — then you’re doing yourself a disservice not getting a wide education, and you’re doing the rest of us a disservice while you’re at it. These days in particular we have enough of people who only know a little and don’t care to know anything else.

So, yes: The division between science and humanities is more artificial than not, and everyone could stand having a wide-ranging education on a number of subjects, no matter what they currently do or what they want to be when they grow up. What I want everyone to be when they grow up is well-educated and able to reason adequately. It’s not guaranteed that this will make for a better world, but again, going in the other direction doesn’t seem to be doing us any favors these days.

55 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2016 #8: STEM and STEAM”

  1. The “I’m just here to learn X” attitude also applies within fields. My wife and I have graduate degrees in scientific fields but we have friends in other disciplines. A while back I was startled to hear a young woman in the Divinity School ask why she had to learn ancient languages and literature when Feminist Theology was all she wanted to do. Aside from practical career matters (any plausible job will expect her to be capable of teaching intro classes in basic stuff like Church History), I thought this very narrow minded for a would be scholar.

  2. It’s interesting that in Russian, the word “Nauk” which is usually translated in English as “Science”, actually means Science writ large, closer to Knowledge/Understanding. There is a Russian Academy of Science, not one of Arts and Science, both are included in Nauk.

  3. Heh. After 14 years of various majors (English, medicine, architecture, music, art, mechanics, theology) and I end up dropping out with no degree and now help run super computers for a research lab trying to crack fusion. Trying to pigeon-hole yourself too soon may not be best course in life.

  4. Indeed. I have an undergrad degree in business oriented things, and did all my graduate work in ecology and ecosystem analysis. So now I am the Sys Admin for a TV network. Makes sense to me that pigeonholing yourself is not good. My youngest studied biology/ecology but is a printer and art designer by trade. She keeps telling me the scientific method is the best system ever for thinking devised by humans.

  5. I love the line “it depends on what you think education is for”. Some students view it as an obstacle in their path, others view it as an end in itself. You don’t have to think very hard to realize which ones benefit the most from it.

  6. One of the things that might be at fault is the learning/testing process in schools. I know that I myself can find scientific or mathematical concepts interesting, especially now, but when we get into the nitty-gritty, or when I had to memorize molecular formulas to pass chemistry: UGH NO DO NOT CARE.

  7. A universally educated citizenry has been a goal for millennia, but educated folks are pretty much just as dichotomized as ever. Consider the sausage-making in University core curricula.

    Academic departments compete to make sure they get their “fair” share of beginning students to take their courses. They also compete to make sure their own majors do not have to struggle too much in math or ancient history or foreign languages. The natural consequence is a curriculum with plenty of choice for students to avoid stuff they don’t think they’re interested in. The beauty of a universal education is learning something fascinating and useful in an area one would never have considered in the first place. Core curricula allow one to avoid that opportunity, while giving lip service to the ideal.

    Here’s a concrete example with my department. My university has a writing requirement, which requires students to improve writing skills. Our department got approval to let students satisfy this requirement by composing a LaTex document. Markup was all that mattered; the quality of writing was irrelevant. Another example: Foreign language requirements can be satisfied by showing proficiency in a computer language. Furthermore, a student can opt out of any one of the core areas. This is all at a school highly rated in the usual college rankings like US News and the Washington Monthly.

  8. I’ll be the killjoy and point out that the 80%/20% doesn’t always work. My favorite example (it being the field I trained in) is ecology and environmental science. There it’s more like 20%/80%. It’s not the basic facts that are hard–kids get those in high school now. What IS hard is that these sciences run on lateral thinking, linking many different lines of evidence together. For those who aren’t used to it, that’s the stuff that Sherlock Holmes does. It’s not impossible to teach it, but the thing is that very few teachers know enough to try. They assume that students have a knack for it or not, and don’t bother with those who aren’t properly knackered. For the majority that haven’t acquired the knack, most environmental science–including critical things like climate change–remain a confusing jumble of disconnected facts, because they never learned to connect the dots.

    This might sound trivial, but when you realize that the vast majority of politicians and civil servants never learned to connect the dots, you can see the real scope of the challenge with climate change. To the extent that there is a solution to this problem, it lies in societal transformation, rather than in finding a breakthrough technology that will magic the carbon safely back into the ground and keep it there, so that we can go on with our lifestyles unchanged.

  9. I would also opine that people who claim they only want to know about the limited things they personally find useful are lying to themselves. It is a fundamentally human thing to want to learn and to create. People who don’t do either have been ill-served by their upbringing/environment.

    Some of this divide comes out of a cultural emphasis on a particular type of learning, and contempt for other forms of learning (legit fact-based learning, not “I think I magically know stuff because it feels right” nonsense). Not everyone learns well in an academic environment. This should not be mistaken as a lack of desire to know new things, or to learn how to process information.

    We need more cultural respect for other kinds of learning: trade school, apprenticeships, on-the-job specialization. And more cultural respect for the ways in which the human brain plays, from math puzzles to writing poetry.

    We have too much cultural baggage invested in “My way is RIGHT and you are stupid because I don’t understand you.” Contempt for other areas of knowledge is predicated on tribalism and ego-defense. That needs to go.

  10. “80% of every possible subject is understandable to the average human being”

    Except quantum physics. Anyone who says they understand quantum physics doesn’t understand quantum physics.

    (Attributed to Feynman, but not clear if he ever actually said it.)

  11. “It depends on what you think education is for.”

    So true. I think an education can be “for” different things for different people though. No doubt that exposure to a variety of subjects makes for a more well-rounded individual. But when someone has to indebt themselves to acquire an education, I don’t begrudge them the belief that learning about subjects outside their desired area of expertise is a luxury they can’t afford.

  12. As a science educator (college level) I want to say that I am of the belief that people should a well rounded education. I agree that science is in art and art in science. Being able to write in complete sentences is important (even though I mess this up at times). Yes I enjoyed my science classes in school, but I also played the violin and took lit classes, philosophy classes in college.

    I know many people that think in America the sciences/math/engineering is the ONLY way to go if you want to succeed and that our education system fails students this way. I must say they are wrong. I want to see people doing what they want and enjoying it. It is important to get a well rounded education, and an education they will enjoy.

  13. @Hetromeles: What you really appear to be suggesting is that science requires critical thinking and deductive reasoning, and without it, you can only memorize facts. No offense, but duh.
    You kind of seem to be saying “Guys, understanding science is about more than facts.” Fair enough. My objection is the exclusivity. You can’t really understand anything without critical thinking and deductive reasoning. I wouldn’t say that the need for those skills automatically takes science to a tier far more complicated than anything else.

    I might even argue – though my apologies if I’ve misread your intent – the mere fact that you think that suggests you never got to the 80 percent understanding with other fields. Those skills are kind of basic tools for understanding anything much past the facts and memorization part in any field. Naturally there are people who don’t develop them and teachers who don’t have the time to truly spend time instilling them in the unwilling, but I think we can see that in how few people really get to 80 percent in even their own field.
    I would say that a benefit of a holistic education, as John is discussing, is that you truly hone those skills when you apply them broadly in a range of situations. What’s more, every field carries a unique perspective that can be distilled and applied even without reaching its highest tier when you’ve spent enough time studying it.

  14. Every day I’m grateful for my liberal arts degree in History, which “forced” me to also study music, art, literature, and math. It’s allowed me to relate history to nearly every one of my students, in some way making it personal – and therefore interesting – to them.

    One of my colleagues and I are responsible for organizing our school’s history department. He’s all on board with STEM, while I find myself allied with HEART (Humanities, Ethics, Art, Rhetoric, and Teaching). Hopefully, we balance each other.

  15. In the 1970s, my college had a single required class in the freshman year, taught by professors from all areas of the faculty. At one point there must have been some issues about the size of the humanities, social sciences and physical sciences divisions of the the faculty because the faculty started considering adding a set of core curriculum. The student paper managed to get a breakdown of the courses taken by recent graduates, and discovered that in general, the most well-rounded students were the physical science majors, who generally had at least 3 classes in all three divisions, and the least well-rounded students were the humanities majors, who generally had no classes in the physical sciences. Strangely enough, when it was suggested that maybe they needed to increase the number of physical sciences faculty in order to provide more introductory science courses for non-majors, the idea of core curriculum got dropped. I am not sure how it has changed since I attended though.

  16. I earned my physics degrees in the mid-70s when tuition costs were affordable for nearly everyone. My school required a certain number of credit hours in the humanities and social and behavioral sciences even for science majors and I chose classes I thought I would enjoy. There were a few clunkers for certain but I doubt I would have as much interest in history, for example, were it not for classes I may well have not taken had they not been required.

    I was fortunate in the education I chose and the career it allowed me to pursue. I never considered what I did as a job, or even a career. I considered it simpy a life, and a life well spent at that. Sadly, too few people get to make that claim.

    Interesting thing about education and intelligence: I have a friend who is a retired commercial airline pilot, and although he does not have a college education, there’s no question he’s every bit as intelligent as me or anyone else I know—maybe even more so. I told him once that the only thing those years of college did for me that separates us in any way is that I can say much of what he wants to say, but I can do it using a hundred times more words. He got a kick out of that!

  17. Completely agree that the division between science and humanities is almost completely artificial once you get into the “real world” but unfortunately, our schooling system seems to think the opposite. Anyone coming out of college without a well-rounded education is certainly at a disadvantage but I tend to blame that much much more on the schools/educators/system than the students at this point. Students are unofficially labeled as “science/math” or “reading/writing/history” as early as middle school! Is it any wonder that by the time they get to college they find the rest of the disciplines outside their own “useless” or “too difficult”??

    As a personal anecdote – my sophomore year roommate in college was a pre-med chem major. The day she finished her required core-curriculum writing-intensive class she cam back to the room, immediately dumped all the class material in the trash, and exclaimed “Finally finished! I will never have to write that much EVER AGAIN! Yay!” (their final exam was a 10 page paper)
    As a humanities/hard science double major I about had a heart attack at this declaration.

    I wish it was easier to convince people of the benefit of scientists who can write well and artists who can reason through an interconnected ecosystem and so many other combinations of disciplines.

  18. Unusually, I have to disagree with you, John on one key point: The sciences and the humanities teach very different foci, different tools for understanding, different forms of rhetoric, and different standards of evidence. *Of course* they overlap, but that misses the more important point of how greatly they differ. The phrase “vive la diffeerence” applies every bit as much in our modern multi-gendered world as in the older binary world of men/women in which I grew up. It also applies to the subject of different disciplines and different discourse communities.

    I’m with Heinlein on this one: “specialization is for insects”. The more ways of knowing we learn, the more fascinating and wonderful the world becomes. To borrow from the Trek universe, “infinite diversity in infinite combinations.”

    In terms of core curricula, I’m a strong proponent of the notion that everyone, whatever their specialization, should be forced to experience a diversity of other subjects. This makes us better-rounded humans, better able to appreciate the world and each other. More particularly, given how few of us know what we’ll end up being passionate about when we first enter university, I think it’s wise to expose ourselves to as many subjects as possible. I can think of half a dozen things, offhand, that I’d never have come to love if my education had been more science focused and less diverse. I’m very glad, in hindsight, that I was forced to expand my horizons.

  19. I got what I consider a well-rounded education, but it was rather *in spite of* my public school, and thanks mainly to well-educated, reading parents with a broad range of books in the house, and their well-educated adult friends. Ended up with an M.A. in History, which was not the greatest choice career-wise, but by the time I was deciding on graduate school my transcript – short on math/science – precluded other things.

    My observation and belief is that if you introduce the sciences (and math) in the right way at the right time, nearly everyone will be sufficiently interested to go into high school, college, or vocational school with a spirit of inquiry & discovery intact. My opinion is that the right time is the moment kids enter school, getting through geometry, zoology, geology, astronomy, geography, biology, and mechanics before the kids turn twelve. Reason being: you don’t actually need to know the math, or memorize molecular formulae, to acquire essential big-picture knowledge about the animal kingdom, the earth, the solar system, and the human body. There is no reason why vocabulary, spelling, reading, composition, citizenship, and history cannot be taught in the context of science. I personally feel that the average child would benefit much more from writing short reports on scientific subjects than from writing short reports on, e.g., fiction.

    Kids LOVE learning about dinosaurs, animal migrations, heavy machinery, tide pools, how a plant grows, etc etc ad infinitum – if you introduce these things at the correct time. Which is BEFORE they are culturally indoctrinated into the anti-intellectual camp.

    Our society suffers from a vast disconnect between the popular concept that science/technology is what you should study in order to make a good living, and the even-more-popular contempt for, and distrust of, intellectualism.

  20. I think in at least a couple of senses that there is a divide between the sciences and the humanities. If by “divide” we mean significant differences at a basic level. Or the very real divide that exists between the two in academic circles.

    The sciences are based on empirical testing to validate models of physical phenomenon in order to understand physical reality well enough to make reasonably accurate predictions. This is difficult because humans are very good at fooling themselves. A large part of the methodologies of science have been designed / evolved to prevent the unavoidable inclusion of humans in the process from screwing things up.

    In contrast the Humanities are very much about exploring all aspects of human existence, including those aspects that the sciences actively try to prevent from interfering with the pursuit of science, and communicating about those things in interesting, meaningful ways.

    These major differences in no way entail that the two should be kept separate. I agree with literally everything John said in the OP about each informing the other and the value of a well rounded liberal education for both maximizing a person’s ability to contribute usefully to their society and for maximizing a person’s ability to create an interesting, purposeful and content life for themselves.

  21. Yeah, learning Humanities is a great thing, but have you looked at what passes for humanities at universities these days? My daughter is about to go off to college and there’s no way I’m going to pay >$40k/year for liberal arts. Yes, I expect her to have a well rounded education, including some liberal arts classes, but he main focus needs to be on something where there’s job prospects on the other side. (and a state school that costs half that or less)

    I got an engineering degree but really wanted to study history. I read a bunch of books that I would have otherwise read in college when I finished school. You can really do a lot of your own learning just by reading stuff.

    I strongly support the idea of being a minimum amount of humanities classes even for engineers. With 20 years of hindsight, the most useful class I had in college was a class on Rhetoric on how to craft an argument. But, a full diet of liberal arts is not something that would have done me any good at all.

  22. I got my BS in Computer Science at UIUC and the College of Engineering there did have a lot of requirements to take a variety of humanities classes for graduate. The Computer Science curriculum went further and required you to take 12 hours of courses focused on a single non-engineering subject as a way to dig into some sort of real world subject area that computer science methods could be applied to (in my case I chose psychology and I loved every minute of it). Interestingly I found that I consistently enjoyed the humanities classes more than the classes in my major. This wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy computer science (it’s what I do for a living) but rather that so much of what I did in the comp sci classes was repetitions of stuff I already knew but didn’t have the option to test out of, and so many of them were large lectures. The humanities stuff, on the other hand, were small classes and all were novel to me, so it really fed into my natural curiosity.

  23. It’s interesting that everyone until chacha1 has talked about college. We have kids for 12 YEARS before they get to college and they should exit high school with introductions to as much of the span of human knowledge as possible. I’d expand on this but chacha1’s comment really covers it. Kids are mostly very inquisitive and curious – use that to expose them to all kinds of knowledge. I’d include how to make things – shop class in high school taught me a bit about forging metal and how to weld, but most importantly it taught me that I could do those if I wanted to and that they were real skills. I didn’t end up using them professionally but being exposed to them and knowing a bit about them was important too.

    About the “I’m just here to learn what I need professionally… if you, like me, are over 40 or so, you should take another look at what it costs to go to college now. Its VERY expensive and is fundamentally more expensive than when I was there. It’s very hard to go to college, even a good state school, full time without some kind of aid. The kind of aid a lot of students are getting now are loans and if they’re bright, they do have an eye on how they are going to pay back tens of thousands of dollars so the focus on college as job prep is understandable if not optimal.

  24. I’d be most worried in the way art is implemented. Listening to friends’ and classmates’ stories of art class (at any level), they got a lot of “Crayola art.” Art is deeply embedded in STEM as it is, but I fear that adding it without the proper structure or expectations would leave out the teaching of art for a purpose. Just teaching drawing and painting skills, without the analysis or choice-making that goes into great works of art, would be a disconnect from the rest of the STEM program.

  25. Miles Archer noted the appalling cost of American universities. You should definitely look into Canadian universities. Universities such as McGill and Toronto, which have excellent international reputations, offer tuition rates less than half that of American universities at the same quality level to international students. (That depends on currency differences, which are all over the map these days.) You can get a primo education up here for less than the cost of some unimpressive state schools.

    Also, whether you’re sending someone to school here or in the U.S., remind your child to apply for every scholarship the school offers that they’re even vaguely qualified for. Last 2 times I checked the statistics (15 and 10 years ago, about), roughly 50% of all scholarship funds were never awarded because nobody applied for them. In addition to academic merit, there are scholarships for just about any criteria you can imagine: there’s money for left-handed polyandrous Martian athiests (established by their grateful predecessors who cashed in on their education and didn’t want to leave the money to their husbands), right-handed evangelical Christians, children of second-generation immigrants from [fill in country name], and all kinds of other stuff you’d never think of. All you have to do is look.

  26. ” Foreign language requirements can be satisfied by showing proficiency in a computer language. ” I hate this idea, and I say that as a computer programmer who has learned a dozen or so programming languages. Natural languages are far more complex and wide-ranging than any programming language. If you want to require proficiency in a programming language, do that. If you don’t want to require study of a natural language (and I include Deaf Sign Languages in that), then don’t. But don’t pretend they are equivalent. I could learn Python in a few weeks if I needed to, but I’ve struggled with Russian for years.

  27. I’m of the belief that the boundary between sciences and most of the humanities is porous and frequently crossed in both directions (and may actually be artificial).

    A large chunk of the sciences involve observing evidence, attempting to fit a framework of understanding around that evidence and then using that framework to make falsifiable predictions about the nature of future evidence.

    A large chunk of the humanities does precisely the same thing and sometimes makes use of the same tools ( statistical probability analysis,climate observations, carbon dating etc).

    My partner actually wrote his PHD thesis on this so it’s a set of arguments that I’ve heard quite often.

    On a personal note, as an in house developer, I’m often suprised by how much of my work involves trying to understand the way people are likely to use (or misuse) the tools I build. the more experience I get, the more convinced I am that there is no such thing as “pure” anything when it comes to living and working in the real world.

  28. So interesting to read this exchange between John Scalzi, alumnus of The Webb Schools and Andy Farke, curator at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, CA. The museum is located on the campus of John’s alma mater. Learning how to learn and the importance of interdisciplinary study are still the foundation of a Webb education.

  29. To paraphrase an army book cliche, if I am in the trenches of the working world, (in a white collar job) I want to be alongside people who, like me, graduated with a healthy smattering of liberal arts classes.

    To invoke a civilian cliche, I don’t want to wake up Monday morning groaning about going into work… among people who are skilled but boring.

  30. @chachai: Nice comment. I’m thinking however that in your list of primary scientific fields you probably meant to write “geology” instead of “geography.”

  31. Liberal education does have a great deal to recommend it, but one problem with it is that the saying that students are the one class of customers who often do their best to not get their money’s worth. I think a student has to really want to extract value from a liberal education these days.

    Sure education is for more that just qualifying one for a job, but at today’s prices, it’s pretty tough to argue that those who see it as a simple price / yield ratio are doing it wrong. Particularly when jobs are where hiring managers tend to actually demand a piece of paper. It’s possible to learn a great deal from online courses and other low-cost means of education, but it’s much easier to do that for personal benefit than to get academic credit that is meaningful to a hiring manager.

    Also, a STEM education tends to be busy. If you major in say electrical engineering, the broadening courses tend to be, physics, chemistry, biology, non-EE math, thermodynamics, statics & dynamics, materials science, etc. In other words, a “liberal” engineering education is still pretty heavily weighted toward STEM, if you want to graduate in a reasonable amount of time. Harvey Mudd offers an engineering degree that I think probably can be described as a liberal engineering degree.

  32. @chacha1: you don’t actually need to know the math, or memorize molecular formulae, to acquire essential big-picture knowledge about the animal kingdom, the earth, the solar system, and the human body.

    This would be ideal and doable, I think. I guess now I have to say why I think we don’t live in an ideal world. The person teaching those subjects would actually need to know everything the students don’t, understanding how to separate essential from non-essential knowledge, well enough to convey the big picture. Can current K-12 teachers do this? I don’t really know.

    I teach in an R1 university, and I don’t think our students graduating with a B.S. have that big picture of my field. I do, with a Ph.D. and 20 years of teaching experience. I could imagine coming up to speed in K-12 education in a few years, but… Recently I interviewed with a small liberal arts college for a teaching position; it was appealing but I would have had to take a 30% salary cut. Curious, I checked into salaries of high school science teachers and found that it would mean a 40% cut. At an elementary school it would be more than 50%.

    This is purely anecdotal, and I’m nobody special. But one plausible path toward this very appealing educational system would involve doubling science teachers’ salaries. I don’t see that happening.

  33. What chachar says. As an adult, I love going to science museums and zoos and watching science programs on TV and so forth. I will never be terribly interested in anything “crunchy”; that’s just not how I work. but I can enjoy the general-concept, big-picture stuff a lot.

    When I had to remember specific facts *and* I was being graded/tested, I hated it. I did well enough to get what I needed out of middle school (entrance to the prep school I wanted) and then high school (entrance to the college I wanted) and then ditched the whole thing ASAP.

    That’s not actually a STEM-specific deal, now that I think about it. I was an English major, and while these days I like critical theory and writing essays and all, back in college I quickly figured out exactly what classes I could skip and when while still getting my diploma, and also that I wouldn’t actually need anything I *learned* in most classes in order to get a job, and spent the next four years unofficially majoring in drinking, boys, and D&D. (With the exception of about five courses I actually enjoyed and thus went to and paid attention in–including, actually, my only STEM course.) Cannot say I regret that.

    So a) you need to divide “stuff you learn” from “stuff that will directly influence your chosen career”, and b) as RSA says, you need teachers or professors who can present interesting, big-picture ideas. Mincome and educational funding for all, I say, but I’m a commie hippie. ;P

  34. I did science/engineering degrees at The Imperial College and then art masters at The Royal College of Art. (This was in the days when the UK govt actually had something faintly akin to a brain and provided such education without this stupid, insane, ridiculous idiocy of ‘student loans’ and ‘fees’) One thing that struck me was how almost everyone I know that did a tech degree was interested in making music, or visual arts, or writing fiction, or poetry etc and almost no one with arty degrees would even admit to being interested in science. My eng degree included languages, sociology, business, economics, philosophy, etc as well as the obvious maths, physics, electrical, chemical, software, maths, design, mechanics, maths, stress analysis, maths and some maths.

    Since I’m not ‘merkin I can’t judge very precisely, but it seems to me that a Liberal Arts degree as I se it described ought to be the first part of your total grown-up education, not the total of it. Since I did spend 13 years working in Silicon Valley and learnt a bit about how ‘merkins work, I suspect that a significant part of the problem of too-early specialisation and narrow viewpoints is the way that college has become a ‘pay-to-play training’ thing and thus expected to provide an immediate return on ‘investment’. This is a very stupid way to run things.

  35. I think the problem lies in thinking of “pure science” and “pure humanities” as the only two players in the discussion. At least one major part of the wider problem, as I’m seeing it, is in the realm of the applied (or “vocational”) versions of both core areas.

    The applied sciences, such as medicine, nursing, computer science (i.e. programming) and engineering, tend to turn out a lot of individuals who are rather dogmatic about their particular discipline or viewpoint being the be-all and end-all answer to the world’s problems. Quite a few of the silliest ideas out there are enthusiastically championed by applied scientists (looks hard at the “mind uploading”, “singularity” and “neo-feudalist” crowds, not to mention the number of nurses and MDs in the “anti-vaccination” ranks). One of the prevailing trends I’ve noticed is there’s a lot of thinking in such disciplines about “how do we do this?” and not too much about “why are we doing this?”, or even “should we be doing this in the first place?”. For an example of what happens when you have too many applied scientists in the one space, and no real moderation (in the form of people asking what the applied scientists loudly consider to be silly questions about ethics, psychology and so on) I present exhibit one: the internet, in all it’s chaotic, bad-tempered, evil-minded glory.

    The recent debacle with Microsoft’s teachable AI bot is a case in point.

    But before the humanities side of the room gets too comfortable, let’s point out the problems with the applied humanities: business, law, economics, education. Again, all these fields tend to turn out (or even tend to attract) dogmatic individuals who are wedded to the notion of their viewpoint as the only explanation for a particular set of circumstances, and who will defend said viewpoint to the death. In the applied humanities the big problem is getting people to recognise something they’re doing/championing isn’t working (for example, supply-side, or “trickle-down” economics; libertarian political philosophy; particular teaching methods; etc). The applied humanities can explain in detail why they’re doing something, and what the justification for it is, but they can’t tell you how they’ll figure out whether or not it actually succeeded. So there’s a lot of “follow-the-leader” turning into “the blind leading the blind”, and the whole apparatus walks off a cliff.

    My go-to example for an applied humanities system which hasn’t been evaluated in years: the US electoral system.

    It’s worth noting: the people in the applied disciplines are often the ones who most strongly resist learning (and having to learn) anything outside their own specialised fields, because they don’t see the purpose of it. They’ll take on any breadth requirements with extremely bad grace and in the most superficial fashion. They’ll often take their “breadth” requirements via another of the applied disciplines – trainee economists or teachers learning a bit of computer programming as their science requirement; trainee doctors or engineers taking business classes as their humanities requirement; and so on. Which means they continue to avoid exposure to questions like “why are we doing this?”, “how do we tell if this is or isn’t working?”, and “should we do this?”, and thus avoid the actual purpose of the breadth requirement in the first place.

    I don’t have any idea how to fix the problem – possibly the trick would be to get wider academic acknowledgement of the difference between the “pure” sciences and humanities and the “applied” versions, and start pushing the breadth requirements in the directions of “you have to take at least one pure science class (physics, biology, mathematics, chemistry etc) and one pure humanity class (politics, philosophy, sociology, psychology, history, etc) in the course of your education, no matter what your degree is in.”

  36. College should be free. Education should be… I hate this word… “round”.

    Education should challenge you. The meme is that a mind is like a parachute, they only work when they are open, and education should open your mind, which means for a lot of people being very uncomfortable.

    Kids should have a decent grasp of american history by the time they graduate high school, plus basic algebra, chemistry, physics. Because even if you dont use, say, chemistry, for your day job, chemistry in the world affects everyone including you. You should have a basic understanding of nuclear power so you understand the basic risks and benefits so you can make an informed decision, rather than have someone tell you what to think. And there should be a class or two on human behavior/psychology that at least covers the basics of how people think, how we are naturally biased, how we are wired for scarcity and fear. Because we all need an operating manual, or at least a quick-start guide, for being human.

    Beyond that, high schools should have options from votech to arts to college prep. There are studies that show music classes improve your grades in other classes. I believe that could be true of any class that challenges, engages, and is just fun to the person taking it.

    College, I think, should be similar in spectrum, but deeper in studies.

    There are certain lessons people need to learn, but I think are best learned indirectly, via experience, via learning other things. An example is learning you can be absolutely certain you are correct about something yet be completely wrong. People dont learn that by telling them. Thry would memorize it and forget it after the test. But let them pursue some class they are interested in, from band, to calculus, to literature, to psychology, and being challenged to think in that topic will invariably give them the experience of certainty of correctness while being completely wrong. You dont learn that living in an echo chamber. You dont learn that in an environment that does not challenge you.

    I think the split between arts and sciences is silly and generally seems to be pushed by people who dont like their thinking challenged. Some try to point at humanities as “underwater basket weaving”, completely useless, but contemporary history, human behavior and psychology, those kinds of classes informs you on life from day to day interactions, to your interactions at the level of citizen-voter. And learning those kinds of things will encourage people to learn more.

    Science has benefits to liberal arts majors too. Knowing basics of physics, chemistry, computer programming, teaches you about topics that have massive impact on your daily life. Without that personal understanding, all that is available to you is to think whatever someone tells you to think about it.

    All that said, I dont agree with Heinlein that specialization is for insects. Not everyone needs to know how to butcher a hog. His list of skills focused on what you might need to survive thd end of civilization. I think school should be about the skills that make you a better member of society. 99.9999% dont need to know how to operate a nuclear power plant, but understanding nuclear power means you can vote as an informed citizen.

  37. I was a biology major in the mid-late 1970s, and had a physics professor (basic physics) who told us that as budding scientists we didn’t need to worry about that silly grammar stuff – in between bitching about how poorly written the modern physics textx were. I lost all respect for him, and made a point of playing “Mastermind” with a friend in class (I was a teenager, after all).

    I was a pre-vet, and my Dad, a CPA, did a wonderful thing for me. He sat down with the catalog and mapped out my required classes and their prerequisites for me on a spreadsheet (the paper kind). This showed me when I could take courses to please myself. So I took English Literature, History of the Andean Region, Introductory Astronomy, and, of course, Viticulture and Enology (it was UC Davis, after all). I am still very grateful to Dad for that gift. Even if I didn’t go to vet school, after all.

  38. I have to disagree with the majority of comments here. Go sharpen your pitchforks, get your tar and feathers ready.

    Many humans are innately curious, but definitely not all of them. My personal hunch is possibly it’s not even a majority of humans. A “well-rounded” education is nice — if you have enough food in your belly and time on your hands instead of being busy clawing your way up Maslow’s hierarchy. Even for academics, a lot of the interplay between fields is really just a passion for alcohol and trying to hook up with that cute person in the other field.

    Specialization is good! I don’t care if that P.E. who stamped the plans can read Latin, I care whether the highway flyover she designed is safe or if the fractionation tower he designed will explode and set the refinery ablaze. And therefore they get paid money for that, and it doesn’t need to matter to anyone but themselves whether they play cello when off the clock or just watch I Love Lucy reruns til they fall asleep.

    Side note: from my perspective, not only are the sciences fundamentally different from humanities/liberal arts/pick your favorite term, they are meaningfully different from one another, as well as from math and from engineering. The chemists told the physicists to pound sand and invented density functional theory so they could get shit done. Physics and geology require extremely different mental tool sets, which many physicists learn when going into oil to find a paycheck and many geologists discover when they need that class to graduate. The biologists, well, it’s called the squishy sciences for a reason.

    The mathematicians are amazingly intelligent and varied in their endeavours, but they are not limited to the physical world. The engineers are none of the above, and their curricula show that they’re not even all that similar to each other (I looked recently, might go back to school post-layoff). I can’t even fathom how much the humanities folk might differ from each other, despite having taken a broad core curriculum and despite all too many years as a student.

  39. Just a quick note because I don’t want people having the wrong word in their heads. The Russian word is actually nauka. (Etymologically it’s “knowledge piled up”, which is cool, I think.) The form in the academy name, nauk, is the genitive plural.

  40. agm: “I don’t care if that P.E. who stamped the plans can read Latin, I care whether the highway flyover she designed is safe”

    Do you care if people graduate tech school with zero concept of history of the last 100 years or so? No understanding of even the basics of, way, evolution or the second law of thermodynamics? With no basis of facts and understanding, people are left to believe whatever someone tells them to believe.

    “The founders intended america to be a christian nation” only has traction in a world of people with zero knowledge of history. Creationism only has traction in a world where people have zero understanding of entropy and energy. The idea of a perpetual motion machine only sells junk to people who have no understanding of physics.

    I am of the opinion that we are all better off if everyone is educated with at least a basic understanding of the facts that affect our world. It makes better voters, and better voters make for better policy.

    School shouldnt tell people what to think, but it should give people a contextual background of facts and tools for the basics of how science works.

    Ignorance begets more ignorance begets Donald Trump.

  41. @megpie: I can’t tell if you’re backing into an argument that we should all be ruled by philosopher-kings, or presenting a Golden Mean fallacy, or something else, but you’re making rather a lot of generalizations from questionable examples (MDs swell the ranks of vaccination advocacy, for example). People tend to think their way is the Right Way regardless of whether they fall into sciences or humanities, and regardless of whether they are in applied fields (which is mostly everybody) or the rarefied strata of the purely theoretical.

    People resist learning about things that fall outside their interest or comfort levels. “What use is this?” is not a complaint you hear much about frivolous but fun activities; it’s a reason, however truly meant, to push back on learning about things that are dull or difficult for the person doing them.

  42. I’ve long held that the weak point in the U.S. educational system is widespread indifference or even hostility to education. Most people know enough to say they support it, but rather support jobs training while telling their children ‘Now don’ t you get smart with me. ‘.

    Some of this is perfectly justified hostility to education-as-wealth-signifier, or understandable hostility to damn Easterners’ lording it over the homespun, but some of it is plain old hatred of the life of the mind.

  43. @Gerald Fnord: well, chalking it up to the intellectual attitudes of the plebes is certainly one way to avoid talking about how broken the U.S. educational system is, especially in relation to people for whom love of “the life of the mind” is about as attainable a luxury as a private island.

    A++ user name, though.

  44. Too many people equate ‘college’ with ‘trade school’, as in, I want to learn how to deal in commodities (or engineer oil wells, or manage banks etc.) and make lots of money. And with the high cost of college it’s hard to accept spending all that money and graduating without a saleable skill. But as Heinlein once wrote, ‘Specialization is for insects.’

  45. I dunno: whenever anyone gives me that Heinlein quote, I always want to point out that insects, as a class, do pretty well for themselves. ;)

    I do think that a basic understanding of most fields is good for an informed population, which is in turn good for the world, and that kids should be aware of all the possibilities (hey, when I was ten I wanted to be a vet or a model, so). But I can’t solve most equations past simple arithmetic and I use a calculator for most of that, I don’t know what conning a ship even means, and any building I design would probably fall down on its first day. I might theoretically be able to program a computer, butcher a hog, change a diaper, set a bone, or plan an invasion with enough time and instruction, but I’m sure it would be a horrible experience for everyone involved. (I mean, more than most of these already are innately, which is “pretty horrible” for everything except maybe the computer.) And I only learned to cook to any reasonable standard five or six years ago: that’s why God made Domino’s.

    On a more modern level, I can’t drive stick, navigate without a GPS, fix plumbing or any other household thing more complicated than changing a lightbulb,* write anything by hand that anyone other than I can read, sew buttons or buttonholes, or do anything more complicated to a computer than clean the dust out. And that’s worked out pretty well for me, honestly: I can’t see myself getting into a situation where I need to do these things and have no alternatives, and I spent my time better, or at least more enjoyably.

    * “My home repair plan is simple. First, you get a flashlight and a wrench. Then you use the flashlight to find your landlord’s number on the lease, and threaten to hit them with the wrench until they fix whatever’s wrong.”

  46. And to further note: my cooking still isn’t anything I’d feed to company. I am the person who brings Stop & Shop cookies/fruit salad to potlucks, and I am totally cool with that.

  47. @isabelcooper: I’m kind of ‘meh’ on the specifics of the Heinlein quote, myself, though I like the idea that people should be capable of doing different things. Here’s another list, off the top of my head:

    A human being should be able to read and write, tell an interesting or funny story, do arithmetic, persuade someone to change their mind, satisfy a sexual partner, support a family, raise a child, run a household, hold down a paying job, mediate a disagreement, sing a song, have a hobby, explain why something is right or wrong, …

    Now that I’ve written this out, I don’t quite remember what my point was, but oh well. Maybe it was that almost all human beings are already generalists.

  48. We really are. Though even there, I’d disagree a little: some people are asexual, some people are tune-deaf, some people’s disabilities keep them from holding down a job in this environment, and I myself have no interest in or ability for child-rearing or arithmetic. (We have calculators. And any child left in my care would learn a lot of interesting swear words and probably know how to mix a drink before their third birthday. Child Services would not approve.)

    I’d say that adults should be able to support themselves, financially, physically, and emotionally, in the lifestyles of their choice, and evaluate those choices appropriately, with the appropriate systemic assistance but without leaning on their friends and family to do it, though accepting offered help is fine. (So we need an appropriate social safety net, but nobody should be the main character on Girls, because she’s awful.) They should also have a grasp, even if a very generalist one, on the facts of the world and how things work–climate change, who won WWII, vaccines do not cause autism, etc.

    And both of those requirements apply as much to society as to individuals. For everyone to be able to support themselves requires government intervention and regulation at several levels; for everyone to be basically informed, we need better information systems out there.

    But yeah, I think generalist stuff in some form or other comes naturally to most people. It’s just that “general skill base” is different for, say, me (childless and single by choice, apartment-dweller in a city with good public transit, poly, mid-thirties) and our host (father, husband, homeowner in a rural area, monogamous-as-far-as-I-know, possibly somewhat older but I’m not going to guess) even though we’re both writers in the 21st century United States. It’s an interesting subject.

  49. Yeah, I’ve overgeneralized just as much as Heinlein, less toward naval engineering skills but more toward living in a society. I do like your list.

  50. I started off intending to be a mechanical engineer (I thought Scotty was the most interesting Star Trek character) aided and abetted by my dad, who was also a ME. Then life intervened (my grasp of calculus wasn’t all that), and I drifted through Industrial Design (‘Don’t you think it’s a good idea to design the shell so it can be mass-produced, instead of needing to be artisanally hand crafted?’ ‘Heretic!!!’) and finally got a degree in Fine Arts, where I had been accumulating credits to no good purpose except I found slinging clay to be very cathartic. Oddly enough, the info I had picked up along the way kept my car running and let me replace broken light switches and screen doors as needed. I recently redid my kitchen, replaced the flooring, plumbed for a dishwasher, laid tile for the countertop and backsplash, and installed GFCI outlets in several places as required. It is functional and in my eyes beautiful, as William Morris would have appreciated. Currently, I am a librarian whose main job is helping people find the information they need to make their lives better, but I still have a mess of wildly eccentric mad skillz, and know how to find out what I don’t know.

    TL;DR You never know what skills will come in handy, so if you get a chance to learn something new, take it.

  51. Isabel: I don’t know what conning a ship even means

    Mr. Spock: I shall beam down at once. Mr. Scott, you have the con.

    Heinlein was a Navy man which affected what he thought was “general knowledge”. Big ships have conning towers, from where you steer, navigate, conduct, and control the ship. Sometimes known as the “bridge”.

    “Then you use the flashlight to find your landlord’s number on the lease, and threaten to hit them with the wrench until they fix whatever’s wrong.”

    I can sweat copper pipe, do electrical wiring, lay flooring, patch drywall, install spray-foam insulation, install windows, reframe walls, I’ve installed several water heaters over the years, sinks, toilets, fixed appliances, etc. But I didn’t have much incentive to learn all this until I owned my own home and had to either wait possibly days (or longer) and pay someone to do it, or figure out how to do it myself. So again, what is “general knowledge” or even useful knowledge isn’t as universal as Heinlein seemed to think.

    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.


    There is quite a bit of romance in that list.

    Romanticism: its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1850. Romanticism was characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of all the past and nature, preferring the medieval rather than the classical. It was partly a reaction to the Industrial Revolution,[1] the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment, and the scientific rationalization of nature (Wikipedia)

    glorification speaks to an emotional appeal that overrules the rational. Heinlein wants people to be able to “fight efficiently, die gallantly”? That’s a romantic view of war. But at an even bigger level, his list is quite specifically an “emphasis on emotion and individualism”, which likely is given by his libertarianism.

    My list of required education would be more focused on making people better informed voters, better informed participants of democracy and society. I don’t think Heinlein was so much against “specialization” per se, rather I think he was against the fact that specialization required specialists to rely on society, because to a libertarian, There is no such thing as society(tm). Any one who specializes, must *rely* on society, and to a libertarian, society is an illusion that we may play along with, but could disappear at any moment revealing the true nature of individual, animalistic man. You want to specialize as a brain surgeon? Then you have to rely on society to address all your other needs. Food, Shelter, Clothing. You don’t have time for subsistence farming and micro-neurosurgery. Specialists have to rely on society for food, shelter, clothing. And that necessarily means that society must be regulated, and Heinlein would rather die a gallant death than see society regulated. Society is just an illusion. So regulating society is nothing but regulating the rugged individualist.

    Heinlein’s list isn’t a list of how to be a better contributing member of society. How to be a better voter. It reads like a doomsday prepper skill set of useful things to know when the illusion of society finally comes crashing down. His focus is purely on the “what’s in it for me, personally, to learn this skill”, with a worldview of “society does not exist” coloring and biasing the answer to his own question.

  52. As someone who at one time was exclusively committed to an arts track (fine art and commercial art) and later moved into a science track (computer science), I couldn’t agree more. Both these feed on the other. The best way I’ve seen it said was by John Lasseter, head of Pixar and Disney Animation:

    “Art challenges technology, and technology inspires the art,”

  53. Dear Mr. Scalzi- I teach music history and viola at a small liberal arts university in Massachusetts and your eloquent discussion really struck a chord because my university is struggling mightily with the balance between STEM and STEAM. I sent the link to this blog post to my faculty center, and now we want to have a discussion based on your writing. Would you mind if we did that, as long as we cite you in our materials?

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