This is a great piece, and I think more people need to appreciate why liberal arts degrees can be as valuable as degrees in STEM fields. I am not sure, however, that I agree with the way you have framed the issue. There seems too much of C.P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ in the way you present STEM on one hand and liberal arts on the other. Yes, creativity in arts is not quite the same as creativity in science, but creative thought has present in every scientist that has contributed any meaningful advance in how we understand the universe.
Too often, the nature of scientific endeavour is poorly understood by many, and even poorly taught to those who pursue STEM careers. I agree with your argument that liberal arts studies are frequently overlooked, and in fact offer a way to instil a valuable mode of thinking about problems. At the same time, however, scientific study should not be dismissed as lacking in creative thought. Art and science doesn’t overlap completely, but it should not be said that one is creative at the expense of the other. Poincare said:
‘The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it, and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful it would not be worth knowing, and life would not be worth living. I am not speaking, of course, of the beauty which strikes the senses, of the beauty of qualities and appearances; not that I undervalue such beauty, far from it, but it has nothing to do with science. What I mean is that more intimate beauty which comes from the harmonious order of its parts, and which a pure intelligence can grasp.’
Many scientific concepts are strange and deeply counterintuitive to most peoples’ everyday, common-sense experience, and it has required a great deal of creative thought and sometimes wrenching conceptual leaps to arrive at them. Think how long it took to get past more and more complicated epicycles in planetary orbits before the thinkers such as Copernicus turned their minds to imagining a solar system with the Sun at its centre instead of Earth. Galileo’s ingenious thought experiments that did so much to overturn millennia of thinking about force, and that laid the foundations for Newton and Leibniz. Think of Darwin’s initial sketch of the ‘tree of life’ or the realisation that nucleic acids, rather than the immeasurably more complex proteins, held the key to genetic heritability (and how that beautifully tied together Darwin and Mendel’s earlier work). In some cases, overturning accepted wisdom requires stamina and psychic courage; not quite the same, but perhaps analogous to the way an artist may struggle to express their work and see it take shape and be recognised or interpreted by society.
From the second half or your post (and your bio at the end), I realise this is not anything you don’t already know and, probably, apply in your professional teaching. But this idea that science does not require creative thought is one that seems ingrained in the discourse between STEM and the liberal arts. A scientist needs, to some extent, to be inculcated with a body of knowledge, to properly understand the state of the field and recognise what can be solved, and to creatively generate new ideas that can solve them. Science degree courses — at least, good science degree courses — will lay this foundation.
Yes, there is some degree of rote learning in science, and probably a great deal more in fields such as engineering and medicine, but ultimately a scientist must be a creative thinker to be a truly effective researcher. I would argue that even artistic endeavours require some rote learning, whether it’s to understand the nature of media that can be used for visual art, or learning music or recording techniques for creating new music. The worth that comes from it is in how the artist creatively applies what they know and generates new ideas or sensory experiences. Lord knows the crushing banality of a lot of music generated over the years shows us that not everyone who applies these concepts is successful, and arguably a huge number of artists show little creativity or the ability to craft something meaningful. In much the same way, a lot of scientific research can be seen as ‘going through the motions’ with little discovered that is startling original or contributes any real progress. As with art, though, much of what goes on in scientific research is novel, challenging, exciting, creative, and helps us appreciate the world around us in new and more fulfilling ways.