Briefly, on the STEM vs Humanities debate

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Scott J Davies

Scott Davies is a freelance writer and tutor. He is currently studying a Master of Education. He is interested in education, economics, geopolitics and history. He's on Twitter and has a Medium page.

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  1. fillyjonk fillyjonk
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    says:

    I suspect part of the problem is that, as resources dwindle, turf wars break out. At public universities, pretty much across the board, funding has been flat or cut. And there’s been SO much emphasis on the purely-“practical” side of things: “Go into STEM, there will always be careers in the Health Sciences.” And the constant drumbeat of “but people don’t really NEED college” from some quarters, which in the more extreme edges, slides into “It’s actively dangerous to a young person to go to college!”

    (in my bleaker moods, I wonder if eventually we’re going to see tiny splinter groups that oppose the idea of children learning to read…)

    I am in STEM. But I am the “impractical” kind of STEM – an ecologist. Someone who probably wouldn’t be using her degree if not for an academic career. (I remember a Nature Conservancy job posting I saw as a grad student that basically promised “$300 a month and a lovely spot to camp in!”)

    But I also took a number of non-STEM classes: great books, and linguistics. I am interested in history and I read literature for my own interest and edification. (Most of my colleagues are like that too; the picture of the STEM person as a monomaniac who doesn’t care about “culture” is as inaccurate as any stereotype). I do see the values of humanities and the like.

    I think the problems lie in decreased funding making disciplines circle their wagons and maybe even engage in a little civil warfare with ‘competing’ disciplines (and this may be a feature and not a bug in the eyes of some) and also the fact that the job market has contracted in such a way that people who 30 or so years ago would find a comfortable job with a degree in whatever they wanted to take it in, can’t any more, and they get told to “learn to code” or similar.

    I suspect and fear that a feature of modern austerity and modern problems is that people in different groups get pitted against each other more, and that there are people who have a vested interest in seeing those groups argue/fight/compete.

    (There was a joke making the rounds of Twitter and similar, a few weeks back, about how STEM and humanities/social science should not fight: they should “band together to fight the REAL enemy, B-schools.” I laughed even though I know that’s an unfair joke and I don’t REALLY believe it…..though I have seen our B-school people get stuff the rest of us don’t have, or get excused from doing things that we have to do on the grounds that they “run businesses outside of campus and therefore work in the Real World…”)

    I dunno. I am inherently suspicious of the motives of anyone who seems to be saying “Let’s you and him fight!” because I wonder what their angle is, how they’re going to profit in the end by pitting two others against each other.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to fillyjonk
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      says:

      modern austerity

      Here’s a chart of US government (federal, state, and local) non-defense spending, per capita, adjusted for inflation, in 2019 dollars.

      I’m having trouble finding the austerity.Report

    • Avatar PD Shaw in reply to fillyjonk
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      says:

      When the U of Illinois had that scandal in which it tried to “unhire” a professor who put out a bunch of ill-tempered anti-Zionist tweets, a bunch of communications btw/ the Chancellor and various professors were disclosed that revealed a division btw/ the math/tech fields and liberal arts. Liberal arts professors were expressing the importance of academics being free from censure; while in STEM fields, the view was expressed that the chancellor should stand firm and take a stand because ‘the humanities has lost its soul’ (paraphrasing).

      That left me with the sense that the complaint was not against the humanities per se, but what it had become. I can only speculate on what they thought had changed — declining rigor, sensationalism, trivial topics, post-modernism?Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to PD Shaw
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        says:

        I came around to feeling that Salaita had been shabbily treated — he left one tenured position for another, only to find that he hadn’t really been hired into the new one, and had lost tenure perhaps for good. But my initial reaction as a non-academic was that if you publicly embarrass your employer, you shouldn’t be surprised at losing your job.

        Of course, as a non-banker, I always thought that if your employer goes bankrupt, you’re lucky to keep your job at all, and talk about bonuses is delusional.Report

        • fillyjonk fillyjonk in reply to Mike Schilling
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          says:

          I am an academic, and I still kinda feel you should not embarrass your employer. But I’m also aware that that standard in academia is very unevenly employed; I’ve seen people be reprimanded over fairly minor things and OTHER people totally get away with some pretty darn big things.

          I have a blog and social media accounts and I hope my “my opinions are mine alone” along with my pseudonymity (no one is truly anonymous any more) help keep me on the straight and narrow. Well, also having a v. small following and mostly redacting the worst stuff I complain about (which is mostly along the lines of “OMG I can’t believe my colleague said that” and not, like, saying bad things about an entire group of people)

          And agree with you on the “as a non-banker” thing, though again, it’s usually the little guys who get hurt in those cases these days.Report

  2. Avatar Saul Degraw
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    says:

    I went to college from 1998-2002 which was a peculiar cusp. This puts me at the tail end of Generation X which was a bit of a baby bust. This let me punch above my weight in terms of college admissions. If I applied to my alma mater a few years later, I would have been rejected probably because the competition was much greater. It is also not somewhere around the Schrodinger’s cat level of Old Economy Steve. There was the bursting of the first tech bubble and 9/11 but nothing as bad as the fiscal crisis from 6 years later which really did fuck over a generation.

    The way I see the debate is about the anxiousness of politicians and/or the upper-middle class professionals. My general observation of upper-middle class parenting is that it falls into two camps when it comes to picking a field of study for their likely college-bound children:

    1. “You are smart. You can major in whatever you want and makes you happy/passionate and it might be rough for a while but you will eventually land on your feet.”

    2. “Your future is not secure! Do you see this nice house you live in? Do you know the nice vacations we go on? If you want to do this as an adult, you need to study hard, pick a practical major, and then get a good job in law, medicine, consulting, engineering, etc.”

    My parents were in camp 1. I meet a lot of people, especially people a few years younger than me, i.e. millennials, whose parents were firmly in camp 2. When I tell camp 2 people that I was a drama major in college, spent my 20s trying to do theatre/underemployed and getting an M.F.A., they sometimes look at me like my parents did some form of child abuse. Or simply with wonder of “your parents let you major in drama!!”

    There is also a lot of incomprehension for other peoples passions and interests. Once an engineer said something to me that amounted to “You mean you didn’t read a lot of science fiction as a kid and want to be an engineer?” Probably because everyone or nearly everyone he knew read a lot of science fiction as a kid and then decided to become an engineer.

    On the political side, I do think a lot of politicians push STEM STEM STEM for a variety of reasons. The first is that they perceive it as creating more economic growth than humanities and arts careers. But they really mean a few select parts of stem. They should probably just say Technology and Engineering. They don’t want theoretical physics, evolutionary biologists (gets rid of the God stuff) or abstract mathematics. They want quants and data scientists for hedge funds and “tech” companies like Peloton/facebook (but not “tech” companies like WeWork.)

    More darkly, I think a lot of politicians think arts and humanities majors are more prone to dissent and complaint. Having known people who grew up in quasi to actually authoritarian governments, it seems their educations were math math and more math.Report

    • Avatar LeeESq in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      Authoritarian regimes from Tsarist Russia to the present have known to really favor STEM heavy education because they believe students studying STEM courses won’t become rebellious and challenge the regime.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to LeeESq
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        says:

        Interesting that most practical terrorist organizations go out of their way to recruit STEM people, and find plenty of takers. Engineers are way over-represented in such groups compared to the general population. Osama bin Laden, to pick an example, held a civil engineering degree. Gambetta and Hertog, in Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection Between Violent Extremism and Education, don’t come right out and say it, but imply that once you’ve trained the engineers, it is best to keep them really busy on interesting engineering problems.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Michael Cain
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          it’s…not particularly surprising that groups whose motivation is to destroy civil infrastructure with homemade explosive devices would try to recruit people more likely to know things about civil infrastructure and homemade explosive devices…?Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek makes a similar point, though he was drawing the distinction between physical science and social science. He noted that the only physical science books the nazis burned were ones whose authors were Jewish or otherwise “undesirable” for reasons unrelated to their work. By contrast, many social science works were burned specifically for their content. His conclusion was that the physical sciences are no threat to tyrants, while the social sciences often are.Report

  3. Avatar DensityDuck
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    says:

    This tweet is an example of jocks’ desperate desire to dunk on nerds again. After Columbine, everyone agreed that the jocks were dunking on the nerds maybe a little too hard, but instead of dealing with that aspect of high-school society they just made everyone push it underground.

    Nerds, however, are dealing with a monkey-paw situation, in the sense that they got what they wanted (nerd stuff has mainstream popularity now) but with that comes the sense that maybe nerds don’t need so much protection anymore, that maybe just a little dunking is okay…Report

  4. Avatar Michael Cain
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    says:

    …and then transitioning into IT a year ago…

    Could you expand on this, please? More formal education? Just sort of “picked it up”?

    I admit that I’m kind of snob on this subject. I earned two STEM degrees, built an R&D career, then went back and got an MA in Public Policy and spent three years in a job based on that before I retired. I was involved in hiring decisions in both the STEM career and the public policy job. My own opinion is that I’m sort-of qualified to debate the subject, but not completely.Report

  5. Avatar Doctor Jay
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    says:

    The only think I wanted to contribute is my sense that tweets and statements like that of Joe Kassabian above make it that much harder to recruit women into STEM. This reinforces my point that the gender imbalance in STEM, in my opinion, does not so much reflect prejudice within the field, as it represents a culture-wide bias, held both by men and women, against women doing science, and more particularly math.

    (This is not a statement about the virtue of people in tech. I’m saying they are about the same, perhaps slightly better, than non-STEM people on this issue.)

    I mean, women are supposed to be more caring and compassionate, right? So being a “tech psychopath” is kind of disqualifying, isn’t it?Report

    • fillyjonk fillyjonk in reply to Doctor Jay
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      says:

      though some days these days, I think being able to pivot to being a “psychopath” from being a “caring and compassionate person,” I might in the long run be happier. I seem to take care of a lot of people’s problems and wind up with no energy to deal with my own.

      (That’s maybe an unspoken problem women in STEM face sometimes: the “be my mommy” issue. I get it sometimes from students and a surprising-to-me amount from certain colleagues.)

      Then again, I’m an ecologist/botanist, not a tech type, and I suspect being a botany psychopath would just wind up with me being unable to find employmentReport

  6. Avatar Chip Daniels
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    says:

    I see this as having to do with the dwindling job prospects of young people and the increasing desperation to find some causal link which could explain it and provide a roadmap to a better future.

    ‘Heavy college debt due to majoring in Medieval Poetry” is sort of a shorthand for “You deserve to lose out on a good job” even though it doesn’t really explain much about the modern economy.Report

    • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Chip Daniels
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      says:

      “We need skills X, Y, and Z but would be able to use other skills as long as they are transferable, such as 1, 2 and 3. What do you offer?”
      “I am skilled at @#$%.”
      “….We will be in touch…”

      It isn’t that history or literature or art are bad skills to have or that they aren’t transferable, but they have to be marketed in the right way. And if you add to that the sheer number of applicants too any high paying job, then yes, that is shorthand for not getting hired.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Aaron David
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        says:

        This is important, STEM degrees seem to play close attention to the skills that employers are looking for and adjust curriculum to better align. Arts degrees seem to be more of the opinion that employers should simply want the skills they train for, and if they don’t, it’s the employers fault for failing to see the value in the skills.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Chip Daniels
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      says:

      the dwindling job prospects of young people

      Not a real thing: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/LNS14000089#0

      “But those are all low-wage, part-time, gig-econ…” Nope: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=pFg5Report

  7. Avatar Brandon Berg
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    says:

    STEM disciplines

    We prefer “the inhumanities.”Report

  8. Avatar Oscar Gordon
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    says:

    I’ll reiterate a point I have made before, that the average STEM degree contains a lot more liberal arts than most liberal arts majors realize. My degree required a minimum of 6 or 7 classes from the liberal arts catalog, all them with specific content requirements. And most students took more than the minimum, just because one arts class a semester was a good way to give your brain a break form the constant math and lab work.

    Likewise, arts majors don’t understand just how much a STEM major is required to learn. My degree was 30+ credit hours more than your typical BA, because of all the basic science and math, plus all the topic specific stuff you have to learn.

    Sure, if you just get a basic BS, it’s much more straight forward, but the more specific the degree, the more one has to learn.

    Now, if employers were still willing to do STEM apprenticeships, or any kind of OJT, the BA would get more love, but they aren’t, and even if we had free college for everyone, the BS would still outpace the BA for the same reason. No one wants to get the BA, then realize they have to get a BS or MS to be employed in a job that gives them a middle class lifestyle.

    IMHO, the liberal arts academy needs to be more open to just getting students in the classroom, and less worried about issuing degrees. I’m not going to go back for a BA or MA, but I would like to be able to take the odd arts class for personal enrichment, without having to jump through the hoops of formal acceptance as a traditional student*.

    *Yes I know schools are doing this more, but it’s often still a PITA to get into a class, and the offerings for such students are limited.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Oscar Gordon
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      says:

      As an undergraduate I got a BS, double major math/computer science, minor physics. In addition to all the coursework for that, 12 hours of a foreign language, 6 hours of history, 6 hours of philosophy, 6 hours of economics, 6 hours of English composition. All but the foreign language was interesting and useful at some point. The foreign language is the only thing I regret. Not because foreign language, but because Spanish would have been much more valuable. At that time and place and my majors, my choice was restricted to German or Russian. I had to take real philosophy classes; because of the math major I wasn’t allowed to cheat and breeze through logic.

      I have reached a magic age, and am allowed to audit any class at the state four-year schools for free if I can get permission from the professor. I really need to take advantage of that — I need some particular history courses.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to Michael Cain
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        says:

        Which language did you go with?

        I think we should also note that classes can vary by a huge amount in their costs (though not their prices, which is another bit of craziness). A class in English, history, or introductory engineering, chemistry, and physics is cheap, just the cost of a classroom and a person to lecture and grade the tests. But then some really big expenses hit when the classes require access to MRI machines, DNA sequencers, lab animals, laser spectrometers, advanced chemistry labs, silicon foundries, industrial robots, radio telescopes, jet engines, and cyclotrons. The cost of such equipment is staggering, and none of it can be attributed to the English or math department.

        Quite a lot of the big ticket items might be donated by corporations for tax write-offs, but the university is still going to be stuck for a big tab for the support facilities and maintenance. The accounting department could probably present a good argument that the STEM majors are being subsidized and the liberal arts majors are getting wildly over charged.

        Ironically, the massive advances in computers has probably made a CS or IT department vastly cheaper than it used to be back when a university needed multi-million dollar IBM mainframes and rooms full of printers, punched card readers, or TTY computer terminals.Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to George Turner
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          says:

          German. In the few places where it might have been useful, the German speakers all wanted to practice their English. The only opportunity I ever had where I could have used Russian was with my cousin — the Air Force taught her Russian so she could sit in the back seat of an F-4 and listen to stuff on microwave leakage in real time.

          Special equipment needs vary. None of my math classes needed more than a chalkboard, chalk, and some number of chair desks. OTOH, every university I’ve ever attended had at least one good-sized theater, a hall suitable for a group as big as a chamber orchestra, and lots of practice and rehearsal space. One of the fringe benefits of going to a big well-rounded university is all the classical music majors with performance requirements.

          The free audit program I mentioned specifically excludes courses with a lab requirement.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Michael Cain
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        says:

        No career in Kremlinology?Report

    • Avatar Ferny in reply to Oscar Gordon
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      says:

      Isn’t that the point though? Like, sure, it would be nice if people could take a random history class, but like, we are a discipline, not just a random hobby for the Facebook engineer to dabble in.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Ferny
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        says:

        Sure you are, my wife’s BA is in History. Her MS is in Library Science, because the discipline of History as it is taught by the academy has limited career opportunities in the current economy.

        So either the discipline needs to find a way to make itself more attractive to the economy, or it needs to be more open to the students seeking enrichment.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Ferny
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        says:

        The following is based on the catalog for the four-year state school closest to me. The school is accredited to grant PhDs in many fields, including history. Different schools may do things differently, of course.

        Everyone should have to meet the prerequisites if they exist. There’s always the first one, qualifying to get into the school. The school whose catalog I pulled up let me into a (non-history) PhD track several years back, so let’s assume that’s covered. There’s one 4000-level course that might be the urban history class I want. One particular 1000-level course is recommended for that class, but not required. Those are the only written requirements.

        What Oscar and I are used to in STEM departments is that most 4000-level classes come with a list of prerequisites, one of them often a 3000-level class, which in turn requires a couple of 2000-level classes. In this catalog, some 4000-level engineering classes are restricted to a short list of majors (sometimes as short as one). The math department doesn’t limit majors, but they’re hell for prerequisite chains. So to us, that 4000-level history class looks like fair game. So do 20 or 30 of the other 4000-level classes in the history department.

        Different disciplines do things differently. What are we missing?Report

  9. Avatar JoeSal
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    says:

    Just spit balling this, but maybe there ought to be really bright lines between what is empirical objectivity and what is social objectivity.Report

  10. Avatar veronica d
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    says:

    It’s one thing to be critical of some of the excesses of say, the culture around some tech startups within Silicon Valley. It’s quite another to suggest that there’s something inherently wrong with people who work within STEM disciplines.

    This is half of it. I think there is a real dynamic where “engineering types” believe their abstract models a bit too much, which I think is the result of a kind of hyper-analytic mind combined with tunnel vision. After all, if you have the brilliance to understand the standard model of particle physics, then what if you turned that same brilliance to constructing a completely absurd model of how, for example, gender works. I’ve seen the outcomes of this kind of thing. The results are functionally delusional.

    In theory, STEM types should have a solid foundation of empirical science, and thus not fall into these traps. In practice, they fall into these traps.

    So fine. Whatever. The world contains plenty of whackadoodles. Some of them are engineers. The problem is, when you combine this tendency with our narcissistic “disruption” economy, along with the money pouring through SV — well things go wrong in particular ways.

    Are these “particular ways” the worst things to happen in human experience? Of course not, but they are bad enough. The point is, we should want the people driving our economy to be reasonable.

    At least I want that.

    Will the humanities help? Do they provide tools to escape these mental traps?

    I think they do. I surely hope they can.Report

  11. Avatar Pinky
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    says:

    I don’t see a problem with Kassabian’s tweet. At least, not if I’m reading it right. “A focus on STEM” and disregard of liberal arts at a societal level would create an unbalance in culture. A personal focus on STEM – that is, majoring in STEM – isn’t a bad thing and doesn’t propel a person into psychopathy (at least, no more than any difficult study regimen).

    I personally wish I’d taken more STEM classes. I think it’s easier to pick up liberal arts casually as an adult. STEM demands a more systematic approach. I mean, other than nature programs, you just don’t run across casual, consumable science. (As an aside, there’s still nothing funnier than footage of arctic foxes pouncing nose-first into the snow.)Report

    • Avatar JoeSal in reply to Pinky
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      says:

      “At least, not if I’m reading it right. “A focus on STEM” and disregard of liberal arts at a societal level would create an unbalance in culture.”

      Do you have any objective evidence that it would create an unbalance?Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to JoeSal
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        says:

        As a counter-argument, I would point out that when you watch a National Geographic Explorer story on the wilds of Africa or some Amazonian Indian tribe, there don’t seem to be any native STEM graduates, though for all we can tell, everyone might have degrees in art, mythology, language studies, ecology, and interpretive dance.

        *poke*Report

        • Avatar JoeSal in reply to George Turner
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          says:

          It may be instructive to attempt a year of survival in the wilds of Africa without tools and principles…..or Boers/Dutch farmers for that matter.Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to George Turner
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          says:

          I’ve always wondered about the first occurrence of something like:

          “Hey, you leave Ugh alone. Maybe he can’t see all the way across the clearing, but look at his flint work! Have you forgotten that we traded six of his spear points to the clan in the next valley for your wife? And that skin you’re wearing — who else thought of rubbing it with deer brains?”Report

          • Avatar veronica d in reply to Michael Cain
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            says:

            I’ve often wondered what would have happened to me if I were born into some kind of hunter-gatherer society — if that sort of question even makes sense. I was a very weird kid with a very weird brain. I can imagine it going different ways, depending on the nature of my clan and how they handled “gender stuff.”

            I would have either been tied to a tree as a sacrifice to the saber tooth tiger god, or else been made into a shaman. I think this is true for a lot of smarty pants trans kids.Report

          • Avatar JoeSal in reply to Michael Cain
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            says:

            It’s interesting that in this scenario, it is Ugh working in the church of ability that makes him valuable.

            I propose that if the liberal arts were still in the church of ability we wouldn’t be having this discussion, (and people would be a hell of a lot more likely to understand what Jay says more often).

            That liberal arts have been used to create an environment in society where the only solution is that the church of needs SHOULD be in power, has been it’s undoing and rendered it basically a useless formal construct.Report

  12. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    I’ll repeat something I said a million years ago:

    Someone who can get a degree in a subject that has multiple weed-out courses will benefit hugely from the humanities.

    Someone who is only capable of getting a degree in a subject that does not have weed-out courses will benefit less from the humanities.

    The humanities are *HUGELY* important. Vital. Degrees in humanities seem to be less so. I suppose they’re important as a class signal…

    Report

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