Why STEM Needs Liberal Arts

Some Dude Says
Oct 14, 2019 · 8 min read
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Image by Jonny Lindner from Pixabay

I lived down the hall from a group of STEM majors in college. They were great guys, but communication was not their strong suit. I still remember walking into my computer science major friend’s room and watching him have a complete meltdown at the thought of reading something “as hard as” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This book is taught in some high schools, or even earlier.

To be honest, when I first started college, I believed in the STEM supremacy as touted by my high school and college. Seeing the number of STEM majors struggle with basic reading and writing really put things into perspective for me. There were gaps in their knowledge which were both intentional and unintentional.

It shocked me that so many students bragged about how few non-engineering or non-STEM courses they were taking or would have to take. Some students got away with the absolute bare minimum, while others lamented that the bare minimum had too much “useless stuff”.

STEM needs the liberal arts to aid with communication, diversity of thought, and to round out missing skills.

Liberal Arts

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The liberal arts are typically used to describe the combination of literature, poetry, philosophy, and social sciences, but this isn’t the whole picture. Liberal arts encompasses these things, but also the physical sciences and mathematics. The point of a liberal arts curriculum is to have a balance which allows you to understand the physical world, the people in it, and how to convey your thoughts about either. If you only understand the physical world, you miss out on the people. But, if you only understand the people in it, you miss out on the workings of the world. And, if you can’t convey your thoughts clearly, who really cares what you understand?

The liberal arts ultimately aims to explore the intersection between humanity and the universe we inhabit. How do we come to terms with the nihilistic prospect of the heat death of the universe and the ultimate pointlessness of existence in the context of modern science without the philosophical backing to understand and process it? Humanity continuously butts up against the cold brutality of nature itself.

Liberal arts provide the scaffolding to put science in a human context, and humanity in a scientific context. This context allows for the ethics of science and the ability to better understand the human condition. We examine the black box of the universe and see the systems governing nature, our world, its people, and ourselves. Each piece grows towards the others and continues until they overlap, but there isn’t a clear-cut spot where one ends and the other begins. The individual grows into a piece of society, and science bleeds into philosophy. Everything is intertwined.

Communication

My dad loved to say: “ It doesn’t matter how smart you are if you can’t communicate it. “ This was his way of tempering my ego, but it was also his warning against being too one-dimensional.

Virtually every teaching method calls for communication and the ability to explain yourself clearly and concisely (like the rubber ducky method). You may not aim to work as a teacher, but what do you become when you train a new team member or have to explain a concept to someone outside of your specific niche (like your boss)? You demonstrate mastery through what you know and how easily you can convey it.

Self-Expression and Communication

I paid a good part of my college tuition by ghost-editing (and writing) for STEM majors. The sorts of mistakes I saw in papers would be comical if they weren’t so sad. These were native speakers which had no excuse for the type of mistakes, or the frequency with which they made them. They were hopelessly lost even with basic writing. The more complex the topic, the more aimlessly the paper wandered. Sometimes, I had to sit down with them to even make sense of what their paper was supposed to be about.

Cementing the pillars of science requires interpersonal and communication skills. Literature, poetry, art, philosophy, and so on all give way to self-expression and communication, and STEM desperately needs more communication. The sciences may give you the words and the topics, but these are useless without the glue to bind and shape them into something understandable. Science proper is sterile, society is not. You have to know how to pretty up the information to make it attractive and understandable to those outside the field.

Diversity in Thought Process

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Science is essential to human progress, but what is science without ethics? Should people be forced, willing or not, to become subjects to speed up medical research? History has shown that the answer to these questions is traditionally a frightening one. As science has grown, so have our ethics and our philosophy about where science stands in respect to society. We are humans and not machines. We are individuals and not part of a collective. Our individuality is what defines us, our society is what shapes us, and what we in turn shape. We are inseparable from it, and it from us. We mustn’t forget this or we are doomed to repeat the follies of our history.

The liberal arts exposes us to the human element behind the sciences. Differing viewpoints and differing opinions help us to diversify our thinking. The social sciences, literature, and philosophy in the liberal arts give us the tools to understand and relate to each other while the hard sciences give us the ability to understand the universe and cosmos.

Thinking Outside the Field

What does GIS have to do with marketing? How do automation and customer service intersect? Where does writing lead to scalable IT? Without the right scope of knowledge to draw on, these questions are unanswerable. You can’t capitalize on the vague similarities between industries if you can’t see them, and you can’t see them without thinking outside of your comfort zone. You have to be more than just a specialist.

Rounding Out Skills

Balance is essential to functioning in a workplace and in society in general. Skills need to be rounded out to diversify one’s understanding as well as to cover any slack from holes in lower education. You can’t do your best without understanding the purpose of what you’re doing. You can’t profit efficiently without understanding the value of what you do.

Understanding the Business

Businesses are composed of multiple parts, ranging from the technical to the non-technical. These all need to work in harmony in order for the business to be successful. If you don’t understand the economics of a business, how can you make the right technical decision for a given task?

When I worked in oil and gas, there was an engineer who suggested a process which would make each well cost 50% more for a theoretical maximum increase of 15%. He did not understand why our boss would have rather just drilled another well or two for the cost over the multi-well site. His lack of understanding of the basic economics of a well could have cost the company millions if his work hadn’t been checked.

Many engineering programs are trying to remedy this by adding entrepreneurship or business requisites to their degrees. These measures help, but fail to remedy the whole problem. They only patch over some of the more obvious holes as far as I’m concerned. There is far more that goes into a company than just the economics of a project. Safety, ethical concerns, social implications, environmental implications, etc. all need careful consideration.

Patching Holes

How can one hope to communicate if they can’t even write a basic sentence? This is the unfortunate truth for a good number of the STEM majors I dealt with. They hoped they could throw math and science at any problem until it went away. Unfortunately, sometimes the “problem” was a prompt about a poem. Many of my classmates came close to failing literature classes which were treated as complete blow-off classes by the majority of the student body.

For a lot of them, it wasn’t their fault. These were not stupid or ignorant people either. They just lacked the basic tools to understand the topic, and the basic tools to convey their opinion and understanding about it. The humanities inherent in the liberal arts help to force more attention to communication. Math begets more math, but philosophy usually begets a discussion. Curricula which include more liberal arts influences require more diverse viewpoints and knowledge-bases which quickly either bring someone up to scratch or forces them to confront the ugly truth that they’re way behind.

Why the Baseline Matters

The freshman literature class which made my old friend freak out at Frankenstein should have served as a warning, but instead, he just avoided the problem. He was lucky and made it through college, but he struggled to move anywhere but within the niche he carved out in college. He ultimately lacked the basic skills to move in the direction he wants to, and is stuck with all of his job offers being more of the same.

“A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”

I have moved industries multiple times and rolled with every punch life has thrown because I can easily communicate and have a well-rounded education. Luck played a roll, but I capitalized on every similarity between fields. A skill in GIS became a skill in marketing. A writing job translated into a technical job. Knowing how the parts go together means that shifting laterally and growing in a new industry is much easier.

Moving Forward

Science does not exist in a vacuum. With the impending singularity, society needs to reassess how technology is affecting it and where we really stand. Science brought us both medicine and atomic physics, and the devil is in the details of how we use either. Medicinal science led to both mustard gas and vaccines, while atomic physics led to both nuclear power and the atom bomb.

When scientists and doctors mention Thimerosal and explain it as a “non-bioactive form of mercury”, all the scientifically-illiterate person hears is “mercury”. The distance between the modern ivory tower of science and society is unfortunately at a high. Should we cater to people too ignorant for their good? Probably not, but they have exactly the same say as someone knowledgeable in any given democracy, and there’s more of them than there are knowledgeable people unfortunately. We need science to come out of its tower and to learn to mingle with the masses again.

STEM needs to expand its horizons and reintegrate the human element into its corpus. Communication is the key. Where are we going and why? What does your work mean in the context of the whole? Your employer needs to know as much as society does. STEM needs to round itself out more instead of further specializing itself. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math may be the way forward for humanity, but they can’t get ahead by leaving everything human behind.

Originally published at https://somedudesays.com.

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Some Dude Says

Written by

I write about technology, linguistics (mainly Chinese), and anything else that interests me. Check out https://somedudesays.com for more from me!

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

Some Dude Says

Written by

I write about technology, linguistics (mainly Chinese), and anything else that interests me. Check out https://somedudesays.com for more from me!

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

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