In an increasingly industrial world, humanities remain equally important to STEM
A worrisome trend has emerged in our educational system. The humanities and fine arts are becoming increasingly undervalued, while more emphasis is placed on students who major in science, technology, engineering and math.
To be sure, STEM fields are important. It is not hard to see why they are lavished with so much attention, praise and, most importantly, funding.
Virtually any industrial job out there requires some sort of exposure to the aforementioned disciplines, and it is true beyond any doubt that the miracles of technology that have profoundly shaped our society owe themselves to hard scientific inquiry and application.
By comparison, it is difficult to see the “practical” utility of a discipline such as history or political science or English, let alone any of the classics, literature and cultural studies. Many people hold the attitude that these disciplines are simply a “waste of time” and that nothing is worth studying if it is not “useful.”
Nevertheless, the study of the humanities is essential to a balanced education. The humanities, liberal arts and fine arts deserve no less appreciation and institutional support than the hard sciences.
The discrepancy between the hard sciences and the humanities is not very puzzling. Chemistry professor Simon Bott said he thinks the reason STEM is so favored is because it “brings in money and pumps out money.”
In short, it’s practical. But he continued, “The study of the humanities is also very important. Not only does it make you a well-rounded person, but you can develop very important critical reading and writing skills that serve you no matter what your discipline.”
Bott is not alone in his assessment. Kimberly Meyer, who teaches the English- and literature-based Human Situation course for The Honors College, agreed on all points and added, “Creativity should not be undervalued. The arts and humanities play a critical role in promoting creativity, and that’s a trait that will help everybody.”
Students have mixed opinions. Political science sophomore Sahar Sadoughi said, “The humanities teach you about who you are and how you react to the world.”
This sentiment is echoed by others, including creative writing sophomore Isaac Morey. “I certainly think there’s a great deal of value in studying the humanities, and I would love to see them receive more funding than they currently are.”
Other students, such as freshman Donald Slaw, remain skeptical. “I like to learn about that sort of thing, especially art, but economically speaking, it all comes down to jobs.”
This sentiment, that the humanities are interesting but impractical, appears to be the mainstream among all the critics of a humanities-focused education. There is undoubtedly an element of truth to these concerns, yet the solution must not be to shun the humanities altogether, but to reform our expectations about what an education is — and isn’t — and adapt so students can spend more time engaging the arts and humanities.
Besides refining critical reading and writing skills, the humanities and arts confer another major benefit: cultural exposure.
History professor Bailey Stone explained that “Houston is a growing and diverse city. The University of Houston is one of the most diverse institutions in the entire country. We need adequate history and cultural programs to serve this diverse student body. This involves an emphasis on research, building up the libraries, enhancing programs and reaching out to the Houston community.”
This point cannot be overstated. The utility of some fields in the humanities and fine arts may not always be apparent. It is easy to see why the fields of English and history are important and practical, but it’s not as clear why, for example, Latin American literature ought to be explored or promoted by the University.
The answer, as Stone suggests, is twofold. On the one hand, knowledge of these disciplines is a benefit in itself — if, of course, you believe that learning for the sake of learning is good. In addition, such knowledge enhances our ability to relate to others from different backgrounds — to understand where they come from, what moves them, what forms the foundation of their identity. The humanities and fine arts are, therefore, profoundly important.
History is a case in point. The study of history is the exploration of our collective memory. It is, therefore, no more true that the study of history is unimportant than that an individual with no memory or life experiences is ready and able to confront the world.
In short, if the sciences enable us to answer the question “how does it work?” then the humanities enable us to answer the question “why does it matter?”
Opinion columnist Hayder Ali is a history and pre-med sophomore and may be reached at [email protected]