Photo credit: Phalaen Chang / HS Insider.
San Marino High School

How about both?: Insight into the STEM vs. humanities debate

Last semester, we had a seemingly simple assignment: research a career you would be interested in pursuing and write an annotated bibliography to go along with the research. As a bunch of teenagers who barely plan past the next test date, many of us were stuck on the very first step: picking a profession.

“Well… on a career test I took, I was told I would best be suited for being a lumberjack?” my friend deeply involved with dance said, confused. “Do I just do mine on a lumberjack then?”

“Mine said I should be a coroner,” my friend passionate about drama said. “Not doing that.”

Inevitably, like most others in my grade, both ended up deciding they wanted to pursue something in the STEM field.

education teaching bee class teacher personality lecturer shl080425 low How about both?: Insight into the STEM vs. humanities debate
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“Only STEM matters anyway,” my classmate said with a scoff as he watched me edit my poem for the umpteenth time that week.

Later that night, I went home and redid my assignment, changing the topic from something in the humanities to neurologist. But even after my research, I still could not figure out what was wrong about the humanities and why, it seemed, no one could see the value in it.

Many seemed to think the humanities did not offer the critical skills or opportunities science presents. Parents, concerned that their children would not be able to make ends meet in the future, pushed for more resources in STEM.

More and more students have been trying to pursue a STEM degree, seeing no point in focusing on history (“what’s past is past anyway”), art (“what practical use can one have with the skills to paint landscapes?”), music (“how much money can one make singing or playing an instrument?”), or literature (“since when do we analyze poetry in real life?””).

So what causes even world-renowned scientist, E. O. Wilson, to say “that our species possesses one vital possession worthy of their attention… the humanities.” ? What causes even a scientist to call the arts our one vital possession rather than the science that led to penicillin or the discovery of DNA?

In reality, humanities teach us more than they get credit for. From dance, I learned the importance of presentation and taking care of my physical well-being. Drawing in the margins of math workbooks and notebook covers, I learned about the importance of observation and creativity. As a 7-year-old starting the violin, I learned about grit, focus, and perseverance, as well as the revelation that what worked for others might not work for me. After trying my hand at acting, I realized the importance of understanding different characters in-depth, seeing each character as a unique and three-dimensional individual, and learned to understand and sympathize. As a seventh grader discovering the power of words, I learned about the importance and satisfaction in self-expression, finding and developing a voice of my own, and the beauty in ordinary life. From every area of the arts, I learned to think critically and creatively, as well as how to express myself effectively, all of which are skills necessary in every profession.

Harvard professor Helen Vendler notes in “Valuing the Creative and Reflective,” that while “poetry makes nothing happen,” the “cultural resonance of Greek epic and tragic roles—Achilles, Oedipus, Antigone—and the crises of consciousness they embody—have been felt long after the culture that gave them birth has disappeared.” She continues on, listing the contributions of Homer, Beethoven, Emily Dickinson, and Gandhi, reminding us that while poetry, music, or philosophy essentially does nothing immediately, it is the arts that leave the longest lasting impact on society.

The records of our past remind us of the challenges and recurring challenges we will face in the world and urge us not to make the same mistakes. They remind us what it means to be human, what beauty lies in honest expression, and the paths opened by creativity and the ability to think critically. They teach us about times we can never experience, feelings we otherwise could not sympathize with, and worlds we will never see.

That said, I have also learned valuable lessons from my time in science classes. From the sciences and mathematics, I have learned a method in which to discover things on my own, drawn inspiration for poems from the miracles of chemical reactions and life processes, and a ways of problem solving. I, too, can see the comfort and lure in knowing there are some things that give a definite answer and have learned to place faith in the notion that no matter how hard the problem, there is always a solution.

So, in the end, what is more important for our society? Which field essentially will benefit humankind and equip us with the necessary tools to progress? Turns out the answer is neither STEM nor the humanities, but a healthy balance of both.

As professor of American Literature Sarah Churchwell eloquently points out, “The humanities teach us not only what art is for, but what life might be for, what this strange existence might mean,” while the sciences are better described by blogger Antonio Vega as a method that “has allowed humans… to face the challenges that allow [us] to live longer and better.”

It is important that we ensure a healthy STEM education, but it is also important that we do not forget the humanities. While we might be more inclined to one or the other, both are ultimately vital to our society and inexplicably intertwined.

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