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Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Arts and Sciences in Education

The Washington Post recently posed this on its website (link here):

Humanities majors: Make your case

The demand for employees skilled in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields continues to rise, as does the cost of education. So, does the United States need more humanities majors? Or should students pass on the humanities in favor of STEM degrees? And, if they do, will it help the United States maintain an innovation edge? Guest writers have made the “yes” and “no” case both on TV and with us here. Now, it’s your turn. Do we need more humanities majors? Cast your vote, and then defend it in the comments below.

YES: We need more humanities majors
NO: We don’t need more humanities majors

Begin Commentary:

There has been a lot of ink in the press lately about the liberal arts and their "value" (a word which sometimes obscures more than it reveals). The above poll from the Washington Post is just the most recent example. In this post I'd like to suggest that the question above is not framed properly. It pits "STEM" fields against the "humanities". This, to me, is a false dichotomy. I have a BA in mathematics, and then went back to school to pursue post BA education in classical languages (Greek and Latin). I did both, because both enriched me as a person. Both gave me valid and useful perspectives and tools. Both taught me to think about things in new ways. Both challenged me to stretch my understanding of myself, our world, and contemporary issues.

I would like to humbly suggest that any life that is deprived of either science and math OR the humanities (art, music, history, literature, language study, etc.) is incomplete. And that an individual's education should not be about "getting a job" or "maintaining an innovation edge", but about improving one's self. Education isn't a means to a goal; it is the goal. (Thank you Andrew Abbott, for that insight!)

Furthermore, I would suggest that both the arts and the sciences achieve their greatest significance when they learn from one another. The study of science and mathematics can bring new insight to the fields traditionally assigned to the humanities, and the humanities can inform science and mathematics. I believe the world might be a better place if a few more scientists read a little more Kurt Vonnegut and Plato, and a few more literature majors took the time to learn Calculus and Physics.

In the words of Alfred North Whitehead, "You cannot divide the seamless cloak of knowledge." And to borrow from Aaron Sorkin's dialogue in "The West Wing" (in the episode "Gone Quiet"), "There is a connection between progress of a society and progress in the arts. The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo Da Vinci. The age of Elizabeth was the age of Shakespeare."