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.