In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I made a case to my colleagues in the STEM fields that we need to stand up for the arts and humanities. It’s not that I think those colleagues do not value the arts and humanities; on the contrary, I know that the vast majority of them do. Indeed, most of the scientists and mathematicians of my acquaintance are themselves well-educated in the humanities and understand the importance of those disciplines to placing our own within the broader context of human experience. But we need to do more than just understand. We need to speak up.
The line between the sciences and the humanities is blurry at best, and allowing short-sighted politicians to starve the humanities in the name of fiscal responsibility is dangerous to us as well as to them. The habits of mind we seek to develop in students – intellectual curiosity, thoughtful analysis, an ability to withhold judgment – must be developed from many angles to be maximally effective. Put another way, our students need to study the humanities in order to achieve the level of intellectual maturity necessary to succeed in STEM (or, for that matter, anything else). Beyond that, the humanities frame our understanding of the world and grant us access to experiences we have never had ourselves – a critical thing for scientists, surely. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the trajectory of science over the last 150 years without the influence of Jules Verne, to name one notable example. At least as important are the ethical questions raised by the likes of Mary Shelley, H. G. Wells, and George Orwell. Ideally, an understanding of historical context informs our cultural conversation about such questions; when no such understanding exists, the conversation suffers or even dies.
Decades of research have shown a positive correlation between arts education and learning in STEM fields. Generations of worried STEM faculty have warned of the dangers of over-specialization. Of course, their influence on the sciences is not the only reason to support the arts and humanities; far from it. But the damage to STEM education that would be, and is being, caused by cuts to arts and humanities programs cannot be ignored. My plea to my STEM colleagues is, therefore, exactly that: stop ignoring it. Speak up.