Medievalists in Public! (Writing about the Humanities)

Yesterday at The Conversation, Cecilia Gaposhkin, a medieval historian at Dartmouth, wrote a piece arguing that STEM are not distinct or in competition with the liberal arts. They are the same thing.

The idea that STEM is something separate and different than the liberal arts is damaging to both the sciences and their sister disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.

Pro-STEM attitudes assume that the liberal arts are quaint, impractical, often elitist, and always self-indulgent, while STEM fields are practical, technical, and represent at once “the future” and “proper earning potential.”

First, let’s be clear: This is a false and misleading dichotomy. STEM disciplines are a part of the liberal arts. Math and science are liberal arts…

Advocates of STEM are missing the point. The value of a liberal arts education is not in the content that is taught, but rather in the mode of teaching and in the intellectual skills that are gained by learning how to think systematically and rigorously.

Gaposhkin concludes with a discussion of the specific ways in which a liberal arts education is necessary for an engineer or doctor to truly thrive.

Today, at Inside Higher Education, Paul Sturtevant, who works for the Smithsonian and runs The Public Medievalist, makes a similar argument about how to promote our worth in the public square:

There is a different unifying principle for most non-STEM disciplines — among them English, history, politics and civics, languages and literatures, education, the arts, philosophy, psychology and sociology — which I call the human disciplines. All of the subjects within human disciplines are fundamentally interested in people and with subjectivity. Our disciplines not only illustrate esoteric questions of the meaning and purpose of life but are also uniquely well suited to explore questions of how to live and work with other people. In practical terms, if the job requires being able to work with and understand people — particularly those different from yourself — these degrees can, and should, make you better suited for it. They promote empathy, and require students to regard problems, and people, with complexity and the understanding that no single answer is right.

These kinds of jobs exist in all walks of life and include CEOs, kindergarten teachers, judges, advertisers, curators, coaches, social workers and many others. They form the linchpin of our society. They not only drive our economy but also make our country a better place to live by having good, well-trained people doing these jobs.

In my heart, I fear that making instrumental arguments about the humanities is a losing game. If we try to play the “gets you a better job” – even if it’s true, which it is! – we’re going to lose the rhetorical fight to defend the humanities. People – from Barack Obama to the random parent who comes looking at my college – just don’t believe it. 
But it is true. People who learn a set of technical skills without the critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, and systematic analysis to expand those skills as circumstances change, are merely being trained for yesterday’s job. I’m so pleased to see two colleagues making that case in public.

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