Let’s Stop Pretending that STEM is Incompatible with the Humanities

Cover Photo by Chris Ried via Unsplash

At the end of my sophomore year of high school, I took care to meticulously stitch together my course schedule for the following year — junior year, that daunting chapter of high school that would bring college tours and standardized tests galore. As my classmates and I vigilantly selected our classes, the advice of upperclassmen stood strong in our minds. Given the hefty workloads of both AP Biology and AP United States History, it was common for students to opt for just one or the other. There were, of course, exceptions to this trend, marked by those students who bravely forged ahead with both the Krebs cycle and Keynesian economic theory. 

For others, however, the decision felt monumental. In perhaps the most superficial way possible, it seemed to represent an unequivocally important distinction — are you a “STEM person” or a “humanities person?” At the moment, it seemed as if everyone who selected the former was bound for medical school; anyone who selected the latter was destined to spend their days poring over thick bindings of literature with yellowing pages. 

Needless to say, I was painfully naive to believe that this decision is one that is made and sustained at age sixteen. While there are undoubtedly students who know from elementary age that they are interested in geology or meteorology or film, it’s callow to think that this is the rule and not the exception. (Back then, I thought I might go to school for environmental science. I’m currently pursuing a degree in labor relations.) 

While this urge to classify ourselves into restrictive categories (think about all those personality tests you’ve taken to heart) is clearly not ideal, this dynamic is indicative of a far larger, far more pervasive issue. 

How in the world did we all seem to tacitly conclude that STEM and the humanities are incompatible?

Let’s take a quick look back…

This inquiry will be one that looms over our discourse. As a starting point, my mind is hovering at the Renaissance. Recall those glorious days back in fifteenth and sixteenth century Italy when the arts and the sciences were upheld on an even plane? The “Renaissance man,” one who dabbled in disciplines across the spectrum of creativity, objectivity, and sport, was the ultimate envy. Take Leonardo DaVinci, for example, who crafted some of the most beloved works in art history yet also worked in mechanical and hydraulic engineering during his time in Milan. 

Looking not much further ahead, we find a similar story in the Enlightenment. Even a cursory overview shows that philosophy and science often went hand in hand. Encyclopédie epitomizes this interdisciplinary synergy, for one could find everything from social theory to mathematics in a single volume. 

When exactly did we see this paradigm shift, then? As historians love to do with a whole host of salient upheavals, I’ll point to industrialization. Even before jobs moved out of the home and into the factory, the putting-out system minimized the control workers could exercise over the entire course of production. Gone were the days of knitting an entire sweater independently using wool from the sheep you maintained in the backyard — work was now largely beyond the control of the workers. Marxists would point to a change in ownership of the means of production; others would highlight the trend toward increasingly specialized tasks.

My hypothesis lies in the following — as workers began to need a much more narrow set of skills in order to succeed in their jobs, the incentive to explore further disciplines seemed to dwindle. Even today, numerous companies compete on cost by giving their workers very concentrated responsibilities, allowing them to achieve an efficiency that enhances productivity (and, the hope is, profits).

Of course, there are numerous other contributing factors to be examined on the individual and community level — family values, religious prominence across cultures, access to education in these areas, and so on. While the long-term evolution of our global society has been instrumental in building up this falsehood of STEM-humanities incompatibly, these lower-level factors also need not go unnoticed.

Debunking the myth

As several educators have espoused, an education that focuses on only one of either STEM or the humanities lacks an essential sense of balance. How can the engineer or the chemist adequately showcase their findings without being able to write a thorough, well-organized lab report? Are a photographer’s pictures not improved by knowledge of the camera’s innerworkings?

One need not look far to uncover innovation happening precisely at the intersection of STEM and the humanities. Architecture is perhaps one of the most prominent examples, balancing the needs of stability and safety with artistry. Skill in areas like physics, computation, and material science are complemented by prowess in drawing and sculpting. Web design is yet another illustration, pulling together computer science and a creative eye. 

So what?

Knocking this widespread misconception off of its throne might be more important now than ever. Across the globe, educational administrations are cracking down on the division of funds used for pursuits in STEM versus in the humanities. 

In September, Australian officials put forth a slate of changes that would make humanities courses more expensive for university students. What’s more, the government would even subsidize classes in subjects like agriculture and environmental science, consequently ushering students towards similar careers. 

In the United States, funding for arts programs in public schools is also a major point of conflict. Close to 30% of students within the public school system in Oklahoma had no access to fine arts courses at their institutions in 2018. This trend seems to be even more pervasive for schools in rural and impoverished communities. 

One possible solution entails working towards a greater integration of STEM with the humanities, thereby demonstrating to students that fields in one category are bound to intertwine with those in the other. Additionally, we can work towards developing the skills that students will need regardless of their careers — critical thinking, comprehensive research, an ability to present information in an engaging and accessible manner — all equally essential to STEM and the humanities. 

What’s your take? Let us know in the poll below. 

Cover Photo by Chris Ried via Unsplash

  • Do you think STEM and the humanities are compatible?

    • Yes
    • No

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Written by Megan Pontin

Enthusiastic word-collector, avid pancake-consumer, and experienced hammock-lounger. Student at Cornell University.

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