The Humanities’ Strange STEM Obsession

STEM is for people that have fallen in love with the world and want nothing more than to know it as well as they can

Photo Credit: Joe McCallion

Two articles published by campus publications have bemoaned the reverence in which STEM is held above the Humanities in the last two months alone. The articles, maybe not surprisingly, were written by students of the humanities, and took the position that the humanities have a vital part to play in the modern world.

In addition, both spoke of the divide that separates the “hard and rational” STEM subjects from what we must assume are the soft and illogical humanities. Had the authors broken the apparently impenetrable paper barrier separating the SciTech section of Trinity News from the rest of the publication they would have found two articles over the last two editions espousing the need for intersectionality between the humanities and STEM.

STEM is seen as the “saviour” to society’s woes and that, as a result, we are investing too much money into promoting STEM subjects, these articles argued. By teaching more STEM in secondary, primary and, god forbid, pre-school we are going too far, they warned.

Well, why not invest in STEM? Why not spend more time on STEM in school?  In the last 200 years, the world has been improving by almost every conceivable metric. 200 years is just about the amount of time that modern science has existed. Of course, progression in technology and science is not always positive in and of itself, but rather the application of new discoveries determines the good of research.

However, STEM does make the world a better place, overall. Try living without vaccines, electricity or an understanding of the world around us. As for involving kids at an earlier age, again, why not? Children’s early years are highly formative – not introducing children to things that may become their life’s passion is unfair. We introduce young people to art, literature and sports. Why on earth should a curiosity about the natural world be the purview of older children?

In addition, it has been argued that organisations aimed at getting young people interested in science are forcibly “funnelling” them down the path of STEM. BT Young Scientist and Trinity Walton Club have been given as examples. Personally, I don’t see how rewarding or giving students the opportunity to follow their interests can be a bad thing. Arlene Gallagher of the Walton Club says that they “give young people a place to explore their interest in science”. It is not deterministic to give people an option. After all, there are many sports clubs available to children, and not all of us grow up feeling forced to play sports.

One of the most offensive arguments I have heard is that giving priority to STEM subjects over ones that have historically had higher numbers of women, devalues these disciplines and in turn reinforces gender imbalances. This statement is misleading and inaccurate, as it negates the work and dedication of women in STEM fields and actually reinforces gender dichotomies.

Although many STEM fields are male-dominated, to promote STEM is not to promote this dominance. Ignoring the work women do has historically made it exceptionally difficult for them to have their contributions recognized in scientific disciplines. Just ask Rosalind Franklin, Marie Tharp, Jocelyn Bell Burnell and countless others lost to history. Trying to make science accessible to every type of scientist can only be positive.

Another argument is that the arts are more creative than STEM subjects. I have heard this many times, from many places. It comes from a complete misunderstanding of what STEM subjects are. Science requires true creativity to formulate a hypothesis that will be able to answer our questions about the world around us. Technology is literally the creation of new ways of interacting with our environment, which requires vision and imagination. Engineering is solving the problems that confront humanity by building structures and machines that would make people just a few hundred years ago think of us as gods.

As for maths – this one is harder for me, as maths is not my forte. However Rachel Hanger, a maths student in second year, had this to say: “Maths is the language of life and nature. You can see the golden circle, and mathematical principles, throughout it”. To say that creativity is the dominion of the humanities and arts alone is to miss the point entirely. STEM is for people that have fallen in love with the world and want nothing more than to know it as well as they can.

As we find ourselves increasingly at odds, with fake news, and the misrepresentation of our lives’ work, we need to find more effective ways to communicate. This is done by creating narratives – something that, historically, a lot of scientists have been poor at.  Remember that in order for new technology to make an impact in the world today it is necessary for it to be profitable, something that business students are needed for. In order for society to manage the implications and effects of new technologies we need lawmakers.

Overall, combining the strengths of all areas of academia is necessary to stem the tide of anti-intellectualism that is on the rise. Articles complaining about “obsessions” with STEM do not help, but do nothing more than compound the imaginary barrier between the humanities and STEM, and reinforce damaging stereotypes for both disciplines. In today’s climate we need more, and we deserve better.