Why STEM Needs the Humanities

Written by Ryan Evans on January 31st, 2018

It seems the system of progressive modern education proposes a new educational fad about every twenty years. At one point it was whole language, where the emphasis on word meanings replaced skill-based instruction and purged phonics instruction. Or the new math, which stressed a discovery-based inquiry, often at the expense of seeking an actual correct answer. Who can forget the WASL? The Washington Assessment of Student Learning met its demise due to low scores, funding issues, and fickle goals. The list goes on, with Common Core being the latest in an inevitably changing, highly-politicized agenda.

In contrast, the liberal arts represents not a trend but a tradition. The concept of training for freedom (derived from the Latin, libera) has existed since the Greco-Roman period. The idea is that by exposing a person to a wide variety of subjects, ideas, and first principles, a person is trained in how to think and how to live as a problem solver, with the goal of equipping a human being to pursue a plethora of callings and not simply one specific or technical trade.

So is STEM (Science, Techonology, Engineering, Math) a fad? Yes and no. STEM training is essential in an economy increasingly dependent on these critical fields. But while all these areas are critical subjects in themselves and worthwhile endeavors of study, placing too heavy an emphasis on STEM will result in a deficient education.

Surprisingly, the biggest names in technology tend to support a liberal arts education over a narrow, STEM-driven program. Some examples (with emphasis added in bold):

  • The late Steve Jobs famously said,”It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough – that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”
  • Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, had liberal arts training, with an intensive study of Greek and a desire to major in psychology in college. Of course, he also posseses a keen affinity for technology, but he commented that Facebook is “as much psychology and sociology as it is technology.”
  • Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos laments presentations that eschew critical thinking and rely on other modes of non-transformative communications. He prefers memos to presentations, saying, “Full sentences are harder to write. They have verbs. The paragrphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

The point here is not that areas of science, technology, engineering, or math should be avoided. Rather, when the liberal arts include STEM, the result is a powerful elixir that sets up students for success.

Providence graduates have majored in all these fields, many of whom now work at computer, technology, and engineering firms. When STEM is combined with history, literature, foreign language, music, and writing, students are best prepared for whatever God calls them to pursue.