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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 03/05/2012

Why STEM is not enough (and we still need the humanities)

This was written by Cathy N. Davidson, Paula Barker Duffy, and Martha Wagner Weinberg, who are all council members of the National Council on the Humanities.

Davidson is a Duke University professor, and author of Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn . Duffy is former director of the University of Chicago Press, the nation’s largest university press. Weinberg is a former professor of political science at MIT and is currently a consultant who has worked extensively with non-profit entities on issues of policy, strategy, leadership and program design.

By Cathy N. Davidson, Paula Barker Duffy, and Martha Wagner Weinberg

Countering the recent trend among educational reformers who insist that America needs to concentrate on practical subjects or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), actor John Lithgow recently protested that no STEM can reproduce and sustain itself without a bloom. He made his remarks at the celebration of this year’s recipients of the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal. Without beauty, creativity, and the deep, sustaining truths of history, philosophy, and literature, he insisted, STEM learning is joyless.

Science and technology are meaningful when interwoven with all of the other modes of learning. A STEM, without its bloom, quickly withers in the forest of everday life.

Several recipients of the Humanities Medal elaborated Lithgow’s provocative metaphor.

Charles Rosen, the great music critic and pianist, protested that joy is not limited to the arts and the humanities. A mathematician working through an equation also feels joy, but he underscored Lithgow’s point that all learning must be motivated and inspired.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen emphasized the instrumental utility of history, philosophy, literature, and the arts in lifting not only the spirit but also the productivity of a society and the individuals it serves.

Historian Robert Darnton described the plan for a national digital public library that will make books in all fields available online to anyone with access to the World Wide Web. Kwame Anthony Appiah agreed that the ultimate purpose of learning — STEM and flowers — is to help us think deeply about the existential question every human must face, the question of values, of “how to make a life.”

Speaking even more instrumentally, Cathy Gorn, representing an organizational honoree, National History Day, noted that, statistically, the 600,000 young students who had participated in the program this year had improved on tests in all their school subjects, STEM included. Learning the analytical, synthetic methods of historical research and interpretation, challenges the intellect and helps it grow.

What all these educators and thinkers were saying is that learning, in all its disciplines and fields, is ultimately about hope: the hope that, through learning, we can lead a better life. Facts and experiments matter when they are connected to the world in which we live and dream and imagine. And some of life’s experiences require far more than facts.

In Maine, the state Humanities Council involves men and women newly returned from Iraq and Afghanistan in performances of the Greek tragedies — helping them as both actors and audience members to express deeply and silently-held emotions, emotions that accompany the experience of war and that often remain buried as our veterans resume life among friends and loved ones here at home.

How shortsighted it would be if our nation’s community colleges — so busy right now gearing up to provide the necessary training in STEM subjects — are unable to supply these men and women with exposure to the literature and history that might help them face life’s obstacles.

The value of such learning is well known to the thousands of citizens aged 50 and older who flock to the rich variety of life-affirming courses on history, contemporary culture, the arts, and literature offered by organizations like the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, a nationwide consortium with thriving programs on college campuses in every state in the country.

All over the country, hospitals, nursing schools, medical schools, and training programs for health professionals in community colleges are finding how important it is to include poetry and music, history and philosophy as part of the training. These other forms of expression enhance the practice and delivery of compassionate care. They are the essential complement to technical skill in ensuring humane treatment and hope for patients and their families.

And as Hunter Rawlings, president of the American Association of Universities, has noted recently, the humanities and arts actually help contribute to alleviating our national STEM teacher and research crisis.

Whereas a high percentage of students who come to college wanting to major in science and engineering drop out and go into business-related social sciences, this is not nearly so much the case at liberal arts colleges.

In fact, at the so-called “Oberlin 80,” the nation’s most selective liberal arts colleges, a higher percentage of students go on to graduate and professional degrees in STEM fields than is the case at the nation’s major research universities. Integrated liberal arts knowledge, where STEM is a vital component of a larger curriculum that includes a range of literacies, creative expression, and the arts, seems to be ideal for developing future STEM teachers, practitioners, and researchers.

In his address at the National Medals ceremony, President Obama quoted Emily Dickinson’s poetic reminder that we “dwell in Possibility – a fairer House than Prose — more numerous of Windows—Superior—for Doors.”

Those doors should be open to all students, for in that world beyond the practical, we learn to imagine beyond pain and prognosis; we learn to aspire to something more. Without a firm commitment to the artists and scholars who create new ways of reflecting on our lives and who surprise us with their answers to new questions, we lose our bloom.

STEM and blossom: in life each motivates the other, and each is essential for success in an increasingly complex world. As we make decisions about our children’s educational future, we hope that we all remember that combinatory lesson.

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