A Tale of Two STEMs
Success in meeting grand challenges depends on the humanities as well as on engineering and science.
Opinion by David Radcliffe
The so-called STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are currently in the ascendancy. They are a hot topic in education and policy circles. In contrast, the liberal arts and humanities are not faring so well; colleagues in these areas feel under attack. With apologies to Charles Dickens, it is the best of times and it is the worst of times for these two distinct disciplinary clusters: a spring of hope for one and a winter of despair for the other.
In the 1950s, C. P. Snow drew our attention to the gulf between the “two cultures” in British intellectual life – the sciences and the humanities. He argued that the humanities had been privileged in education since Victorian times and that this was having a deleterious impact on the U.K. economy in an increasingly scientific age. He compared this with the situation in the United States and Germany, where there was a more balanced approach toward the humanities and the sciences in matters of education and policy.
Perversely, we seem to be fostering a new two-culture divide in U.S. education, with the STEM disciplines being overemphasized. STEM has even been described as the “liberal arts education for the 21st century.” This is happening at a time when practitioners from the STEM disciplines are tackling unprecedented global grand challenges.
These grand challenges are wicked problems set in complex sociopolitical contexts whose solution depends upon a nuanced, deep understanding of history, politics, anthropology, literature, languages and communication, philosophy, ethics, psychology, sociology, economics, and the like. Knowledge of the liberal arts is as critical as technical knowledge if we are to correctly formulate, let alone solve, these grand challenges.
Some have proposed to add art to STEM to create STEAM (Prism, “Full STEAM Ahead,” March-April, 2015). In this vein, a series of Science Galleries are popping up globally – high-visibility spaces that enable the creative energies of scientists and artists to collide. These are exciting developments, but we need to go further. I believe we should foster organic interdisciplinary collaborations between scholars and practitioners across all STEM disciplines and the liberal arts.
This requires that universities and colleges have a vibrant liberal arts community in its own right, valued on its own intellectual terms. Deep interdisciplinary insights depend upon fonts of disciplinary excellence and respectful boundary crossing.
Mirroring Snow’s concept of the two cultures, we can think in terms of not one but two STEM clusters that complement each other: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics on the one hand, and the social Sciences, the arTs, Education, and the huManities on the other.
STEM (traditionally defined) can answer many of the big questions and produce technical knowledge to enhance our quality of life and enable human aspirations. However, the successful application of this technical knowledge depends critically on enabling knowledge about the human condition drawn from the complementary STEM. Equally, the social sciences, the arts, education, and the humanities cannot be separated out from the technological context in which people live and work. There is a profound interdependence between these two STEMs.
They form a vital dialectic that should be reflected in how we educate citizens. The overwhelmingly technical focus of engineering degrees needs to be mediated through a meaningful integration of liberal arts thinking. Correspondingly, key concepts from the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics should be an integral part of a broad, liberal education.
Simply requiring 30 credit hours of general education in an engineering program or having a notional STEM requirement for a liberal arts degree is not sufficient. We need interdisciplinary, boundary-crossing courses that challenge students (and faculty) in both engineering and the liberal arts in terms of their epistemological foundations. Such courses would be co-created and co-taught by faculty drawn from each of the two STEMs. They would test deeply held beliefs of many faculty about their respective disciplinary domains.
Radical new courses of the type envisaged, along with associated curricular reform, require inspired leadership and sustained investments in building relationships of trust. However, this tends to run counter to the prevailing utilitarianism, where intellectual pursuits with clear economic benefits are valued much more highly than those that do not have an obvious return on investment in the near term.
While it is tempting to simply ride the current wave of STEM (as traditionally defined), such short-term thinking will be a disservice to future generations. When historians look back on this time of transition in higher education, will they say that it was, in the words of Dickens, an age of wisdom or an age of foolishness?
David Radcliffe is the Kamyar Haghighi Head of the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University.