If you’re unaware, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. STEM is largely being heralded as the industrial savior of the United States.
Here’s the deal. STEM degrees are getting tons of funding in academia because they’re driving a lot of enrollment. Greater enrollment of STEM students == more tuition. It’s simple stuff, but this is often coming at a cost. In many universities (and I wish I had the Journal of Higher Education I could reference), the humanities programs are suffering budget cuts as STEM becomes more popular. Some universities are even toying with removing some humanities from core curriculum, allowing students to focus more on STEM classes. It’s at this point I must draw a line. Perhaps (okay, it’s definite) I’m biased, but this criticism isn’t without a logical basis.
When I was still in college, I worked as a tutor, helping other students in remedial English as well as critiquing papers in an online writing lab that the English department ran. The majority of my students were in STEM programs. Granted, most of the students in the university were STEM, but there were a disproportionate number of STEM students to humanities or education or psychology.
Many of these students were incredibly bright. These were people with genius level intelligences, acing their Engineering classes while being almost incapable of writing a complete sentence. It pained me to see, because I knew how frustrating it must be for them, being so clever but struggling so much with one thing. I knew because that’s how I felt in math classes.
I point this out because these engineers are going on to have successful careers building the machines and softwares we all use, and that takes a significant amount of creativity. It takes foresight and ingenuity to be able to look at a problem and abstract it to find a novel solution. The problem is, they—no doubt—have difficulty explaining those solutions to other people. They rely on technical writers who are, by and large, not STEM students; rather, they’re humanities students trained to interpret these kinds of technical works.
Think of the great engineers and inventors the world has seen: Nicola Tesla, Leonardo Da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and any number of others. These were men possessing obviously above-average creative minds, but more than that, they were almost always men of letters. They not only knew and understood what it meant to think critically, but also to effectively explain those thoughts to other people.
I hold a literature degree, and I work in STEM. You have no idea how many times I have had to justify myself to employers or peers. Because I didn’t study computer science or math or business systems, I am some kind of oddity, almost a pariah. In my work as a Systems Administrator, I am thankful for my degree almost every day. Studying English language and literature gave me critical thinking and abstraction skills I might not have gained otherwise. Studying creative writing gave me a sense of observation. These have allowed me to take seemingly disparate parts of a problem and stitch them together, giving me insight I may have otherwise missed if my thoughts were bound as tightly as they might have been with traditional STEM education.
Because that’s what STEM looks like to me: creativity bounded. Engineers are bounded by physics, mathematicians are bounded by . . . whatever rules mathematicians are bounded by. (Hey. I did admit to being bad at math).
When it comes to the kinds of computer-related problems I solve, I have to consider problems of budget, problems of usability, and problems of technology. I have to deconstruct these problems, turn them into a cohesive whole, and find the solution that best fits. The technological and budgetary pieces are bounded, and thus require the kind of creativity you’d traditionally find in STEM, but the usability portion is something different. It isn’t immediately quantifiable, and it takes a different kind of abstraction from the others. That different, admittedly fuzzier, kind of unbounded abstraction is the most valuable thing I learned from my time studying the humanities.
I think if there were a touch more of this kind of critical thought, of this kind of abstraction, the up-and-coming STEM workers of the world will be significantly more prepared to handle the challenges that come up in their everyday personal and professional lives. A little bit of silliness, a little bit of whimsy, a little bit of unbounded, unbridled creativity can do the mind a whole world of good.