Twelve hours isn’t a very long time before the world will end. The President said that it was your job to stop the nuclear warheads from being launched, just for another 12 hours so that negotiations can reach a peace agreement. You kept hoping that this wouldn’t happen during your term, but, at this moment, all you can think of seems to be the times that you didn’t spend with your children but should have and what you would give to say good bye to your wife one more time.
It was your idea to move them into a major city, and now it’s your job to make sure that those cities will still exist on the map. The meeting is in three hours, so you start running through all the things you’ve learned up to this point, frantically fishing for what will help buy the world 12 short hours. Science, technology, engineering and math are nowhere on your list, but it occurs to you that your counterparts across the table will also have families of their own.
You remember the great books in the fields of the humanities: history, literature, philosophy and law. You remember the stories that you read, how cultures misunderstood each other, and how ideologies clashed. And you remember how if the people in those stories only understood each other’s histories, they would have said things differently, done things differently, and that perhaps the bad ending wasn’t necessary.
“And in the humanities is where we are reminded, that rocks can be carved into marvelous statues or placed on a catapult and flung.”
Every nation wants to be at the forefront of research and technology. These things make our lives easier, safer and more fun. They also improve our health and protect our loved ones. Thus, it makes sense that American society values the “STEM” fields: science, technology, engineering, and math. As spectacular as the STEM fields have been for improving our lives, lessoning our suffering, and puffing up our chests, history teaches us that the STEM fields are but tools that can be wielded by the noble and the sinister alike. The wizardry of STEM can streamline the fastest way to mass produce baby formula, saving the company millions of dollars, but does nothing to stop the company from cutting corners that compromise the purity of the baby formula, which will cause irreversible brain damage in thousands of infants. Biomedical research can help us do deep surgery without making large wounds but can also be used to forcibly sterilize people, or experiment on captives, whom our biases tell us are less valuable simply because of the color of their skin. Alas, that which controls the greatness and the terror afforded by STEM fields is not found in the curriculum of STEM programs. It will not be found there.
For in the humanities is where it is recorded. In the humanities is where it is sung. And in the humanities is where we are reminded, that rocks can be carved into marvelous statues or placed on a catapult and flung. Beyond resolving armageddon scenarios and understanding the consequences of human behavior, the humanities allow people to learn how to read and write well. A little known secret in the work world is that those who communicate well are those who are promoted to management positions. The higher up in management you go, the less technical work you end up doing. So it behooves students interested in STEM majors to learn how to communicate effectively in word, spoken or written. A love of reading and writing helps you understand why certain ideas are great, and why other ones are terrible. Communicating well helps you resolve inevitable conflicts at home, at work, and within yourself.
STEM fields may teach you to measure the beats of a song, but it’s the humanities that reveal the melody and lyrics.
(This article first appeared on ThinkTank Learning and is reprinted here with permission from the author.)